Cotton Bowl Classic – #2 Clemson Tigers v #3 Notre Dame Fighting Irish (Dec 29)

This game is one of two College Football Playoff national semifinals. The other is the Orange Bowl between #1 Alabama and #4 Oklahoma.

Cotton Bowl

#2 Clemson Tigers

Clemson has become a frequent participant in the CFB Playoffs, and they won the National Championship two years ago (over Alabama). They also made it last season, though they lost in the semifinal to eventual champion Alabama despite being the #1 seed. This year, they went 13-0 (9-0 ACC), and have again settled into the playoff again.

Offense

Clemson is perhaps the most balanced offensive squad in this year’s playoff, with their 529.9 total yards per game divided nearly equally between rushing (259.8 ypg) and passing (270.1 ypg). They’ve scored an average of 45.4 points per game (5th nationally), with a low output of 27, which they scored twice this season.

Passing: True freshman Trevor Lawrence didn’t skip a beat in his transition from high school to major college football. He’s thrown for 2,606 yards on the season, with 24 touchdowns an only four interceptions.

He’s spread those yards around, with four receivers with over 34 receptions. Sophomore Tee Higgins leads the team in receptions, yards, and touchdowns, with 52 catches for 802 yards (15.4 per catch) and 10 touchdowns.

Rushing: The Tigers’ 9th-rank rushing attack is led by ACC Player of the Year Travis Etienne. The sophomore has rushed for 1,464 yards (5th nationally) and 21 touchdowns (3rd). He’s averaged 8.3 yards per carry as well, so he moves the ball when he’s given it. Not to be outdone, the Tigers also have three other players with over 400 yards rushing to help spell Etienne when necessary.

Defense

Defensively, the Tigers are 4th overall, surrendering an average of 276.7 yards per game. This is made up by the 3rd-ranked rushing defense that has surrendered less than 100 yards per game (92.9) and a passing defense that has given up only 183.8 yards per game. They also have the 2nd-ranked scoring defense, allowing only 13.7 points per game, including seven games under that average.

That passing defense has also intercepted 11 passes, with Tanner Muse and A.J. Terrell tied for the team lead with two picks a piece. The passing defense is aided by a defensive front that gets quality pressure on the quarterback, with 46 team sacks (3.5 per game). Junior defensive end Clelin Ferrell leads the team with 10.5 sacks, an improvement over his 9.5 sacks from a year ago.

#3 Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Notre Dame is in the College Football Playoff for the first time ever after an undefeated 12-0 season. There was some question to their qualifications for the playoff despite their undefeated record, as their opponents have a combined record of 79-71 (0.527). Nevertheless, the big name and following of the Irish encouraged the CFP committee to place them in the playoff.

Offense

Notre Dame has a Top 30 offense overall, though it is not because of anything that they particularly excel at. They are ranked only 34th in scoring offense as well, with an average scoring output of 33.8 points. This is by far the worst off all participants in the playoff, though Notre Dame’s defense – which we’ll get to in a moment – allowed them to not need to score to win all of their games. Their high output on the season was 56 points against an average Wake Forest team, while they struggled to score 19 points against Pittsburgh in their closet game of the season.

Passing: Notre Dame’s passing offense is piloted by junior Ian Book, who threw for a respectable 2,468 and 19 touchdowns (and six interceptions) in the nine games he played this season. A trio of receivers combined for just over 62% of the receiving output for the Irish, with senior Miles Boykin snagging 54 passes for 803 yards and eight touchdowns to lead the team.

Rushing: The Irish rushing attack is led by fellow senior Dexter Williams, who ran for 941 yards and 12 touchdowns, averaging 6.6 yards a carry. But he’s not alone in the Irish backfield. Two others – Tony Jones Jr. and Jafar Armstrong – have combined for 769 yards and 10 touchdowns, though they’ve done it slightly less efficiently, averaging just five yards per carry.

Defense

The Irish are a little better defensively, especially when it comes to surrendering points. They’ve held opponents to an average of 17.3 points per game, good for 10th nationally. Only four teams this season scored more than that average against them this season, with the 23 points scored by Virginia Tech leading all opponents. But they also only held one opponent under a touchdown, when Syracuse scored only three points against them.

On a yardage basis, the Irish are 20th overall nationally at 331.5 yards per game. This breaks out to 133.5 rushing yards per game (33rd) and 198.0 passing yards per game (36th). They don’t do anything particularly well, though based on their scoring defense, they are more likely to surrender a field goal than a touchdown to their opponents.

Eleven interceptions seems to be the magic number for teams in the playoff, and Notre Dame is no different. Junior safety Jalen Elliott leads the team with four interceptions, which is the most of any player on any team in the playoff. Senior Jerry Tillery leads the team with seven sacks on the season, part of an Irish defense that has accumulated 31 team sacks (2.6 per game).

The Game

The game is played at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, with kickoff at 4:00pm EST/ 1:00pm PST. The neutrals are expecting about 58 points to be scored, with Clemson currently favored by 10.5 points.

Keys to a win for each side

Clemson Tigers: 

  • Use Travis Etienne to control the clock and set up the pass.
  • Score touchdowns and not field goals when in the red zone.
  • Don’t let Notre Dame establish the pace of the game.

Notre Dame:

  • Don’t allow touchdowns in the red zone when Clemson gets there.
  • Keep the Clemson offense off the field by controlling the clock and pace.
  • Don’t be Notre Dame in big games and choke.

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