The College Football Playoff picture won’t be decided this weekend, but it could be dramatically altered. The no. 1 Clemson Tigers and no. 4 Notre Dame Fighting Irish will compete in a season-shaping matchup on Saturday night, one that will strongly boost the odds of a playoff appearance for one school and leave the other with an uphill climb.
Usually an independent, the Irish joined the ACC this season to solidify their college football schedule in light of the uncertainty of the pandemic. That decision fast-tracked the fifth-ever meeting between Notre Dame and Clemson, although the teams are familiar with each other after playing a high-stakes contest less than two years ago. In December 2018, the pair faced off at the Cotton Bowl in a lopsided CFP semifinal. Then-true freshman Trevor Lawrence threw for 327 yards and three touchdowns to lead the Tigers to a 30-3 win en route to capturing the 2019 national championship.
This time around, the teams will look a bit different. Though Lawrence and coach Dabo Swinney still lead the Tigers and quarterback Ian Book and coach Brian Kelly are the faces of Notre Dame, Lawrence will not play in this game. The Tigers star is out until Monday after testing positive for COVID-19 last week. Lawrence’s absence won’t impact his NFL draft stock, but it has pushed true freshman QB D.J. Uiagalelei into action. Does he have what it takes to keep the Tigers in the driver’s seat for a playoff spot? Or can the Irish pull off the upset of the year? Here are the questions looming as these programs face off in one of the biggest games of the year.
Can D.J. Uiagalelei replicate his performance against Notre Dame’s defense?
Last week, Uiagalelei, the former St. John Bosco High (Calif.) star who was rated 247Sports’ no. 1 pro-style quarterback prospect in the 2020 class, made his first career start against Boston College. He started slow, but finished strong, completing 30 of 41 passes for 342 yards, two touchdowns, and zero picks. He added a 30-yard touchdown carry en route to compiling a 92.5 QBR, rallying Clemson from a 28-10 deficit to secure a 34-28 win.
Uiagalelei benefited from operating within a mostly clean pocket against Boston College. The Eagles pressured Uiagalelei on just five of 47 total dropbacks (10 percent), according to Pro Football Focus’s Seth Galina. Those clean pockets allowed Uiagalelei to comfortably push the ball downfield.
End of the 1st Quarter: BC 14, Clemson 7— Clemson Football (@ClemsonFB) October 31, 2020
Tigers driving to start the second quarter. Check out this laser from DJ on third down to Amari pic.twitter.com/yWwmNNfluo
This weekend, Uiagalelei is unlikely to benefit from such an advantage. Through six games, the Irish have tallied 17 sacks (2.83 per game), tied for the 16th most this season, and have recorded 50 tackles for loss (8.33 per game), eighth most in the nation. Notre Dame’s front seven features NFL-level talent. Senior linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah entered the year considered as a potential Day 2 NFL draft pick. He’s notched only one sack this year, but has routinely infiltrated opposing backfields, boasting a team-high six TFLs so far. Senior defensive lineman Adetokunbo Ogundeji has generated 23 pressures, 15 QB hurries, and recorded three sacks. Senior defensive end Daelin Hayes finally emerged last week against Georgia Tech to notch each of his two sacks on the year.
Uiagalelei may be able to manage. The 6-foot-4, 250-pound signal-caller was sacked once and hurried once against Boston College last week, and demonstrated good poise in a handful of spots where pressure was imminent, such as this 35-yard touchdown pass to running back Travis Etienne:
Uiagalelei is set to face a much more difficult task in breaking down an Irish defense that’s had success rushing the passer and often deploys a two-high-safety look with a handful of experienced upperclassmen in the secondary, in addition to Irish safety Kyle Hamilton. The sophomore playmaker is coming off a six-tackle performance that included a key pass breakup in the end zone against Georgia Tech, and he’ll be key to disrupting Clemson’s receivers and Uiagalelei in the vertical passing game. Uiagalelei will need to be decisive with the ball—without putting it in harm’s way—to keep the Tigers’ offense humming against Notre Dame’s defense.
Is Notre Dame a legitimate contender?
The polls love the Irish—they’re a consensus no. 4 in both the Associated Press and Coaches polls. However, their schedule hasn’t exactly been challenging, nor have they looked consistently dominant. Notre Dame had blowouts against Florida State, Pittsburgh, and Georgia Tech, but also a five-point home win against Louisville in which the Irish posted only 12 points. The Irish are undefeated, but are far from clear title contenders.
Book’s play has left plenty to be desired. The senior is a mobile threat, but his throwing has hampered the Irish passing game—entering last week’s matchup against Georgia Tech, Book’s 57.6 PFF passing grade ranked 71st out of 90 qualifying FBS QBs.
Considering Book is a third-year starter, the Irish’s passing game should be more effective than it is. Notre Dame doesn’t boast an elite receiver corps, but there’s promise within the group. Redshirt senior receiver Javon McKinley, who’s served as Book’s favorite outside target thus far, has grabbed 14 receptions for 264 yards. Grad transfer wideout Ben Skowronek and true freshman tight end Michael Mayer could also factor into the passing game. Skowronek, a former Northwestern Wildcat, is finally healthy from a hamstring injury that kept him out at the start of the year, and against Pittsburgh he broke out for two touchdowns, including a 73-yard score. He leads the team with 28.6 yards per reception, but his involvement has been limited. Meanwhile, Mayer—247Sports’s no. 2 tight end prospect in the 2020 class—enters this week as Notre Dame’s leading receiver (15 catches), and has proved to be a difficult matchup for linebackers across the middle of the field and in the red zone. His athleticism has made him one of Book’s key targets.
"This looks like an American Ninja Warrior course. First stiff arm him, then leap him." – Mike Tirico— Pete Sampson (@PeteSampson_) October 18, 2020
Dating myself here, but feel the same about Mayer as I did about Kyle Rudolph 10 years ago. If football doesn't work out, there's sure to be another American Gladiators reboot. pic.twitter.com/xW7ogvv02N
Book has held the Irish passing game back this year. He’s yet to complete more than 69.2 percent of his passes in a single contest, and his arm strength—particularly his ability to drive the ball to intended targets from off-balance throwing platforms—has been subpar. He hasn’t turned the ball over much (only one interception this year), but he’s restricted Notre Dame’s passing attack from becoming anything more than average.
Ian Book passing splits by throw distance— ️♈️ (@ADavidHaleJoint) November 2, 2020
Behind line: 19-31 for 255 0 TD/0 INT
1-5 yards: 35-49-286 2/1
6-15 yards: 30-49-423 3/0
16-25 yards: 5-13-114 1/0
26+ yards: 3-8-147 1/0
Book's 8 completions on throws of > 15 yards ranks t-46 among 57 QBs w/4+ starts.
To be fair to Book, his rushing ability masks his aerial deficiencies. He ranks among the top 20 FBS QB leaders in estimated points added, per data from Tomahawk Nation’s Saiem Gilani. Book also ranks among the most efficient quarterbacks in the ACC in EPA per play, which includes carries. So while no one should expect Book to pick apart Clemson’s pass defense, he could make a difference with his legs. Per ESPN’s David Hale, Book ranks among the top 10 FBS QBs in scramble yards (184) and has scored five rushing touchdowns. That part of his skill set plays directly into Notre Dame’s greatest offensive strength.
Senior offensive linemen Liam Eichenberg and Tommy Kraemer are likely NFL draft picks. Senior right tackle Robert Hainsey is another possible selection and senior guard Aaron Banks was an All-ACC preseason selection. The group is the heart of a unit that’s helped clear the way for its jittery, explosive tailback trio of sophomore Kyren Williams, freshman Chris Tyree, and junior C’Bo Flemister. Williams leads the Irish with 600 rushing yards (5.7 yards per attempt) and seven touchdowns, and has rattled off 18 carries of 10 yards or more (tied for 13th). Notre Dame’s rushing attack ranks 11th in the nation in yards per game (231) and 21st in yards per carry (5.1). Clemson’s defense has allowed just 2.74 yards per carry (seventh) and 99.9 rush yards per game (15th), setting the stage for an intriguing matchup of strengths.
The Irish’s defense has held five of six opponents to 13 points or less this season and ranks sixth in Football Outsiders’s defensive FEI ratings (which represent the per-possession scoring advantage a team would be expected to have on a neutral field against an average opponent). Notre Dame’s defense has more than held its own against mostly weaker offensive opponents. Limiting Louisville’s offense (ranked 20th among teams who’ve played in offensive FEI) is the unit’s most impressive feat thus far, and the Irish defense hasn’t given any reason for doubt yet. But the Tigers (no. 3 in offensive FEI) present a challenge unlike anything the Irish are likely to face this year—even with Lawrence out. The performance of the Notre Dame defense could dictate how Saturday unfolds.
Is Clemson’s offense still great without Lawrence?
According to 247Sports’s composite rankings, Clemson ranks no. 4 in team talent, featuring 11 former five-star prospects, 35 former four-stars and 32 former three-stars. Simply put, the Tigers are one of the best teams in the country. Even in light of Lawrence’s absence, they thoroughly pass the eye test.
Offensively, Uiagalelei can’t fully replace Lawrence’s experience and generational talent, but he’s a high-pedigree quarterback, and he’s surrounded by elite playmakers. Running back Travis Etienne remains a constant factor for this offense, and the Tigers will lean on him more heavily with Lawrence out. This year, Etienne is averaging 5.9 yards per carry and has generated 17 carries of 10 yards or more (tied for 16th most in the nation). The Clemson offensive line hasn’t exactly dominated, but it’s been solid in helping to spring the run game, ranking 20th in Football Outsiders’s standard down line yards rankings and averaging 2.92 yards per carry in such situations (first down, second-and-7 or fewer, third-and-4 or fewer, and fourth-and-4 or fewer). The group has graded out especially well in pass protection, recording the 16th-best sack rate (3.5 percent) in Football Outsiders’s blocking ratings and the fifth-best standard downs sack rate (1.7 percent).
The Clemson offensive line’s efforts have aided the passing game, which has been among the most explosive in college football. The Tigers have generated 93 total passes of 10 yards or more (third nationally)—senior receiver Amari Rodgers has accounted for 23 (tied for 10th) and Etienne has caught 17 (tied for 25th). With Justyn Ross out for the year, Clemson’s receiving corps isn’t as prolific as past seasons, but Rodgers is a great no. 1 option. He’s complemented by senior receiver Cornell Powell and, potentially, sophomore receiver Frank Ladson Jr., who was out against BC with a hip pointer. Powell recorded 11 catches for 105 yards last week, and he’ll likely need to be just as reliable this week for the Tigers passing game to find success against the Notre Dame secondary.
Despite the Clemson offense’s relative struggles last week—the Tigers converted 7-of-16 (43.8 percent) third downs and had a fumble returned for a touchdown—it wasn’t the unit’s worst performance this season. According to Brian Fremeau’s database, the Tigers produced 3.20 offensive points per drive against Boston College. With Lawrence behind center, Clemson’s offense was less efficient in only two other contests this year (3.18 vs. Miami, 2.86 vs. Syracuse). Considering how confident Uiagalelei looked operating Clemson’s offense last week, there’s reason to believe the unit is still capable of functioning at an elite level, even with a first-year backup behind center—but there is no doubt that the team misses Lawrence.
How would a loss impact either team’s CFP hopes?
According to Vegas Insider, Clemson is favored in this weekend’s contest by four points. Per ESPN Stats and Info, Clemson enters this week with a 72 percent chance of reaching the playoff, and Notre Dame has a 25 percent chance. For Notre Dame, a loss this week will impact any chance of reaching the playoff, especially since the committee likely won’t be as forgiving of a loss with Lawrence out. Vegas Insider gives the Tigers the highest odds of winning a national championship and the Irish the sixth best. The rest of Notre Dame’s ACC schedule doesn’t include any remaining ranked opponents as of Week 10, which will give the Irish few other opportunities to bolster their résumé after this weekend.
There’s also a possibility these teams meet again in the ACC championship game, meaning they could potentially split two results, which perhaps eases any stress about losing this weekend. Both Clemson and Notre Dame are the only ACC schools unbeaten in conference play. If the Tigers lose this weekend, they’d remain in control of their own destiny and would own a head-to-head tiebreaker advantage over Miami, which entered the weekend alone in third place. Notre Dame would also own a tiebreaker advantage over Miami if it were to lose this weekend.
“This game,” Brian Kelly told reporters Monday, “it’s not the end-all for us. We could win this game, but you could lose to [Boston College next week], and this doesn’t mean anything.”
There’s a chance pollsters are likely to be more forgiving of Clemson, depending on how good each team looks the rest of the season. Considering Clemson is missing Lawrence, there’s sure to be more willingness to consider the Tigers for the playoff should they suffer a hiccup this Saturday but dominate the rest of the year. But that would be an uphill battle and leave Swinney’s team without control of its fate. The circumstances entering the contest aren’t perfect, but if Clemson can earn a victory this weekend, it will have cleared arguably the biggest hurdle in its quest to return to the playoff.