WHO: No. 3 Notre Dame (12-0) vs. No. 2 Clemson (13-0)
WHAT: The 83rd Cotton Bowl Classic (and the game’s second College Football Playoff Semifinal)
WHEN: 4:00 p.m. ET on ESPN
WHERE: AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas
THE SKINNY: The Echoes. The Guts. The Playoff.
Clemson finds themselves right back in another semifinal to nobody’s surprise after dominating from just about start to finish this season. The Tigers check off just about every box you’re looking for, ranking in the top five in both scoring offense and scoring defense in 2018 and winning all but two of their games by 20 or more points. You can pick your poison on offense as tailback Travis Etienne averages over eight yards a carry while wideouts like Tee Higgins can stretch the field with big play after big play. Old reliable Hunter Renfrow is also a frequent target for freshman QB Trevor Lawrence, who has been stellar since taking over for Kelly Bryant four games into the season and has more than lived up to his billing as the top player in the class of 2018.
Dabo Swinney’s squad is pretty impressive on defense too. While most of the conversation leading up to the game has surrounded the suspension of defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence due to a failed drug test, Clemson is still loaded up front with potential first rounders like Clelin Ferrell and Christian Wilkins. The Tigers only give up 13.7 points per game and sport quite the rotation at every level of their defense, from sideline-to-sideline guys like linebacker Tre Lamar to a lockdown defender in corner Trayvon Mullen.
Going up against all that is yet another undefeated Notre Dame squad who has passed every test this year with flying colors. While some might have visions of the 2012 group getting blasted by Alabama in the BCS title game, head coach Brian Kelly will be the first to tell you that this year’s edition of the Irish is a lot better on both sides of the ball and more than capable of going toe-to-toe with anybody. One reason why has been the play of quarterback Ian Book, himself a signal-caller who took over mid-year and somebody who can beat you over the top with his arm or on the ground scrambling if needed. Playing behind an excellent offensive line, he forms a pretty good tandem in the backfield with either running back Dexter Williams or Jafar Armstrong, both of whom can turn a little space into a huge gain.
ND’s defense is no slouch either, ranking No. 4 in S&P+ and rolling out veterans like DT Jerry Tillery in the middle and Thorpe Award finalist Julian Love on the back end. The entire group doesn’t give up many big plays and have a good enough two-deep to throw a lot of different looks, players and coverages out there to stymie just about any attack.
Bottle it all up and you have the ingredients for a potentially epic semifinal matchup between two programs who are all too familiar with each other. The biggest key to the ball game will be which offense can more consistently move the chains and convert scoring opportunities, which has typically been the Tigers this season. The Irish will certainly be able to make things interesting and keep it close but eventually the ACC champs pull away and book their ticket to yet another title game.
THE PICK: Clemson 27, Notre Dame 17