The waiting will officially be over this Saturday afternoon at 4 PM EST. The College Football Playoffs get underway at the GoodYear Cotton Bowl Classic. The 12-0 Notre Dame Fighting Irish take on the 13-0 Clemson Tigers in the first semifinal contest, with the former entering the game as big underdogs.
Due to the team’s independent status, the only way for Notre Dame to have a legitimate shot at a playoff berth in 2018 was to go undefeated. The Fighting Irish stepped up to the plate and delivered. While the team found itself in a few dogfights through the course of the year, the bottom line is that they closed out the season with an unblemished mark in spite of a grueling schedule.
Clemson entered the season as favorites in the ACC and an expected playoff team, and they delivered on both fronts. The Tigers bring the dual threat of one of the nation’s top offenses and top defenses to the table, and there’s absolutely no question they are deserving of their lofty #2 ranking.
The hefty spread points to a Clemson victory, but don’t let that fool you. This Notre Dame team can compete with any team in the nation, and the first of this year’s semifinal games should be a real dandy as a result.
Let’s take a gander at this game in full detail, starting with the game line.
Notre Dame vs. Clemson, 4 PM EST, Sat. December 29, ESPN
Notre Dame vs. Clemson pick:
While Notre Dame didn’t have to play an extra game in conference championship week like its fellow semifinalists, the team made up for that with its strength of schedule alone. The Fighting Irish squared off with four nationally ranked teams in 2018. Two of their other opponents made it to their respective conference title games. At the end of the day, the fact that Notre Dame made it through the year unscathed is an impressive feat.
Clemson’s impressive run to 13-0 includes a whopping 11 victories of 10 points or more. That includes the team’s dominating 42-10 win over Pitt in the ACC title game. The Tigers showed all conference foes that the ACC still belongs to them, and it doesn’t look like they have any intention of loosening their stranglehold anytime soon.
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From the season-opening 24-17 victory to the defeat of USC by a score of 24-17 in the finale, Notre Dame has certainly had to work for perfection. However, that doesn’t mean the team didn’t cruise to victory a number of times, as the team’s 2018 resume includes seven double-digit victories.
During Clemson’s dominant regular season, the team was only tested twice. In Week 2, they escaped Kyle Field with a 28-26 win over Texas A&M. A few weeks later, they welcomed a Syracuse team to town that clearly had an upset on its mind. The Orange played them incredibly tough, but the Tigers walked off the field with a 27-23 victory.
If we look at the stats alone, Clemson is clearly the better team on paper. However, the disparity is not so dramatic that we can call this game a blowout and move on. The Tigers are much stronger in the running game, thanks to stud RB Travis Etienne. Clemson is definitely the better defensive squad, but Notre Dame is far from a slouch in that department.
The most eye-popping difference comes in QB pressure, as Clemson is the number two team in the nation in sacks. Once again in 2018, Notre Dame is really going to have its work cut out for it against an incredibly tough team. We can say the same for Clemson, as the Fighting Irish are clearly their toughest test of the year.
These two programs squared off in 2015, a 24-22 victory for Clemson. Both of these schools have a rich bowl history, and a similar record in recent seasons to boot. Both teams hold a mark of 3-2 over their last five bowl appearances.
Last year, Notre Dame faced off with LSU in the Citrus Bowl, and they walked off the field as 21-17 victors. They didn’t fare as well back in 2016 when they faced off with Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl, as the Fighting Irish fell in that one by a final score of 44-28.
Clemson has faced off with Alabama in each of the last two years. In the National Championship game two years ago, the Tigers picked up a stirring 35-31 victory. Last year, the Crimson Tide got their revenge in the Sugar Bowl – which also served as a playoff game – while cruising to a 24-6 victory.
Recent Cotton Bowl history has skewed heavily towards favorites, as those squads are on a 3-0 run both straight up and against the spread. Last year, Ohio State was a 10-point favorite over USC, and they got the job done to the tune of a 24-7 win.
Clemson is a 12.5-point favorite for this one, so we’ll see if another big favorite is able to pull out the win and cover.
Clemson is clearly the better team on paper, so a double digit spread can easily be justified. That said, Notre Dame is far from a pushover, and the team is battle tested from a tough 2018 schedule. As such, they should be able to make more of a game of it than many are expecting.
While we expect Clemson to do enough to get the job done and advance to the national title game, the Fighting Irish are tough enough to make them sweat and have to work for it. Clemson wins outright, but Notre Dame can cover this hefty spread.
We’ll take Notre Dame plus the points.