Clemson might just have this College Football Playoff thing figured out.
The No. 2 Tigers trounced No. 3 Notre Dame 30-3 in the Cotton Bowl on Saturday, turning the first meeting of undefeated teams in a semifinal into a rout and booking their third national championship game appearance in the last four seasons in the process.
After a slow start in the first quarter that gave their opponent just a glimmer of hope, Dabo Swinney’s squad seemed to flip a switch like they have so many times in 2018 to turn on the jets. Leading the charge, as difficult as it was to comprehend for some, was none other than a pair of true freshman. QB Trevor Lawrence showed why he was inserted into the starting lineup earlier this season by throwing for 327 yards and three touchdowns while making big throw after big throw down the field. A lot those passes wound up in the hands of fellow freshman Justyn Ross, who was terrific in hauling in six catches for 148 yards and a game-breaking two scores.
Sophomore Tee Higgins added in an acrobatic touchdown reception just before halftime too while tailback Travis Etienne put the final nail in the coffin with a 62 touchdown up the sidelines in the third quarter and finished with 109 yards in the game.
Needless to say, it was not the performance that Irish head coach Brian Kelly envisioned nor will it be one to quiet down the critics of the program after yet another dud on the national stage. While the team showed flashes on both sides of the ball, especially in the first quarter, it just wasn’t enough to contain the dam from breaking open against an opponent that has proven to be one of college football’s truly elite squads this season.
QB Ian Book was pressured on nearly every drop back and threw for 160 yards and an interception, doing most of his work scrambling around and picking up a few first downs with his legs. While the offense had to abandon the run due to the score in the second half, they couldn’t find much success on the ground either way and Dexter Williams was lucky to get 54 yards rushing against a defense that still looked terrific even without star Dexter Lawrence.
By any objective measure the season should still be considered a success in South Bend but the thud of an ending with everybody watching on no doubt stings quite a bit.
The campaign is not over yet for Dabo Swinney and company however. The Tigers are headed back out West to take part in the national championship game at Levi’s Stadium and have their eyes firmly on bringing another CFP title back home with them.
There are precious few programs operating at the level Clemson is at the moment and they’ll have a shot at winning it all against either No. 1 Alabama or No. 4 Oklahoma after a dominant display at the Cotton Bowl.