clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Game That Defined the Weirdest Season in College Football History

Notre Dame beat Clemson in a double-overtime thriller on Saturday night. It will go down as an instant classic—but perhaps not for the reasons you’d think.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

One day, we’ll look back on Notre Dame’s 47-40 double-overtime win over Clemson as the game that defined the weirdest season in college football history. It was the matchup of the year, a clash between two undefeated top-five teams, and both traded brilliant moments and inexplicable blunders for hours. The game was so fun that it was possible to forget that the best player in the sport was sidelined with the virus that almost canceled the season—at least, until thousands of fans poured onto the field en masse.

Recent history has seen Clemson truck its way through ACC competition en route to a spot in the College Football Playoff. Entering Saturday, the Tigers were 50-2 in conference play since 2015, and that’s not including their five consecutive wins in the ACC championship game. But this year, a new challenger entered the fold: Notre Dame, which temporarily ditched its status as a proud FBS independent to ensure it could fill a football schedule during a season in which many programs limited scheduling exclusively to conference play. Against Clemson, the Fighting Irish scored a touchdown with 22 seconds remaining in regulation to force overtime, and then scored touchdowns on both of their overtime possessions to win.

Saturday marked Notre Dame’s first home win against the no. 1 team in the AP poll since 1993. While Clemson has transformed into a world-beater in recent years, Notre Dame has settled into a pattern of championship-free greatness. It has raced out to several hot starts, but has been dismantled against elite opponents. In 2018, the Irish started the season 12-0 before losing to Clemson by 27 points in the Cotton Bowl. But now, Notre Dame proved it belongs in the national title conversation.

The echoes have been woken up, and I’m sure those echoes sound louder than ever in a stadium that is built for 80,000 people but is limited to hosting about 15,000 fans per game because of coronavirus precautions. The idea behind this restriction is that fans can stay socially distant if there are fewer of them, but they did not stay socially distant on Saturday night.

The field storm is an essential part of the fabric of college football; there’s no better way to celebrate a win than by rushing past overwhelmed security guards to hang out with a few thousand of your closest friends. But in 2020, storming the field is dangerous. Coronavirus cases across the country are on the rise, including in Indiana. Last week, 10 of the 59 scheduled FBS games were canceled due to COVID-19 outbreaks. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly considered the possibility of a field storm before the game, telling his players to hurry into the locker room after a potential victory instead of hanging out on the field to celebrate with fans.

This all unfolded hours after Joe Biden was elected president of the United States. NBC cut away from the game in the second quarter to broadcast Biden’s victory speech. When the game went into overtime, some viewers were upset that it delayed the start of the most anticipated Saturday Night Live episode in years. (People were extremely mad about both broadcast developments.) In normal times, Notre Dame’s win over Clemson would be remembered as the upset that shaped the playoff race. This season, it will go down as a time capsule of how bizarre college football is in 2020.

This was the first weekend of the season in which all 10 FBS conferences played games, as both the MAC and Pac-12 kicked off their respective seasons. This might seem like a sign that the pandemic that threatened to derail the season has been defeated; instead, the United States had a million new COVID-19 cases in just 10 days, with The New York Times reporting that the country is experiencing the “most widespread wave of infection since the pandemic began.”

From a football standpoint, the good news is that some of the worst fears about how the virus could spread have not come to fruition. A recent Sports Illustrated report said that medical experts have found “no evidence of on-field transmission.” But athletes are still getting the virus simply from living in a nation that’s overrun with it. In addition to the 10 FBS games canceled this past week due to the coronavirus, 16 NFL teams had players on the COVID-19 reserve list.

Research shows that younger, more athletic people tend to have better outcomes after contracting the virus. According to CDC data, just 479 of the 200,000-plus confirmed deaths from COVID-19 in the U.S. have been among those younger than 24. But bad outcomes are still possible. Jaguars running back Ryquell Armstead will miss this entire NFL season with COVID-19-related complications that reportedly make it hard for him to breathe. In September, Division II football player Jamain Stephens died shortly after testing positive. Last week, not far from Notre Dame, an Indiana college student died of COVID-19.

Clemson’s team has been among those hit hardest by the virus. Earlier this year, it was reported at least 37 Clemson players had tested positive. Xavier Thomas, a defensive end who was named to the All-ACC third team in 2019, tested positive in April and says he was unable to breathe normally until September. And Saturday night, the best and most famous player in the sport was among those out because of COVID-19. Clemson superstar quarterback Trevor Lawrence missed his second consecutive game after testing positive. Without Lawrence, the Tigers have played their only two close games of the season: They edged Boston College 34-28 on Halloween before falling to Notre Dame on Saturday.

A few months ago, Lawrence was one of the faces of a player-led movement that pushed for establishing mandated health and safety protocols so that college football could stage a 2020 season. That Lawrence was so vocal meant a lot: As the projected no. 1 pick in next year’s NFL draft, he could have accepted the notion that the season would be canceled and prepared to earn tens of millions of dollars in the pros. Instead, Lawrence fought to play another season as a college athlete, for free. I suspect there would have been a college football season regardless, but this movement ensured that players had a voice in the decision-making process of a sport that was built largely on ignoring their preferences while generating huge sums of revenue off their unpaid labor. Despite having real concerns about playing during the pandemic, Lawrence and his fellow players simply couldn’t resist the allure of nights like Saturday in South Bend. There’s a magic to college football, and if you love it, that magic often outweighs everything else.

Lawrence, fortunately, seems healthy now. He completed a 10-day quarantine period before Saturday and was allowed to travel to the game with his team, even if he wasn’t cleared to play. In his absence, Clemson turned to true freshman D.J. Uiagalelei, the top-rated quarterback prospect in the 2020 recruiting class. Uiagalelei left his home state of California to play for a school in South Carolina after seeing how Clemson helped turn Deshaun Watson and Lawrence into stars. A 6-foot-5, 243-pound mountain with a nitrous oxide booster attached to his arm, Uiagalelei threw for 439 yards with two touchdowns against Notre Dame. You’ll be seeing him hurl heaters in Clemson games for the next few years.

Uiagalelei’s passing didn’t cost Clemson on Saturday, but his handoffs might have. While filling in for Lawrence, he’s struggled with his exchanges to running back Travis Etienne. Last week, a flubbed exchange at the goal line turned into a 99-yard Boston College return for a touchdown. This week, a bad pitch from Uiagalelei to Etienne turned into a Notre Dame touchdown.

Against Boston College, Clemson still pulled out the win because Etienne racked up 224 yards from scrimmage with two touchdowns. Against Notre Dame, Etienne had 18 carries for 28 yards. Etienne averages 7.3 yards per carry for his career, with 19 games of 100-plus rushing yards. On Saturday night, he registered a career-low 1.6 yards per carry.

Notre Dame and Clemson are now ranked no. 1 and no. 2 in the ACC standings. While the conference typically awards the winners of its two divisions (the confusingly named “Atlantic” and “Coastal”) the spots in its championship game, this year the two teams with the best records will face off. That should be these two. On December 19, we could see this matchup again—only this time featuring the best player in the sport.

College football is strange in that its championship isn’t decided by team success alone, but rather by a selection committee that determines which teams are worthy of having an opportunity to win the national title. In some cases, the committee ignores teams with impressive records because they played subpar competition; in other cases, the committee ignores teams’ losses altogether because of mitigating factors. This season will present the committee’s toughest test ever, as schools from different conferences are playing seasons of differing lengths with few crossover games to show which conferences are superior. One thing is clear, though: Given the nature of Clemson’s loss to Notre Dame, Saturday’s result likely won’t impact the Tigers’ playoff chances.

In 2017, Clemson lost an October road game against Syracuse, but still secured the no. 2 seed in the College Football Playoff bracket in part because its starting quarterback, Kelly Bryant, missed the second half of that contest with a concussion. It’s reasonable to expect that the committee will similarly excuse this loss, with the main difference being that Lawrence was out because of the world-changing pandemic.

If Clemson wins every game the rest of the way and beats Notre Dame in the ACC title game, it will be in the playoff. If Notre Dame wins out, it will be in the playoff too. But if the Irish lose their first appearance in a conference title game, they could find out that not all wins are created equal. They would have a double-overtime home win over a hampered Clemson team and a neutral-site loss to a full-strength Clemson team. If the committee has to choose between the teams, Clemson would get the nod.

And Notre Dame isn’t even guaranteed to make the ACC title game. It has four regular-season games left to play, and the effects of Saturday’s field storm are yet to be seen. On Sunday, the school’s president sent out an email admonishing students for the “widespread disregard of our health protocols” and outlined new procedures for limiting spread. Of course, it’s hard to take COVID-19 advice seriously from a guy who was hanging out without a mask at a White House superspreader event.

The best college football player missed the biggest game of the season because of COVID-19 and his team lost; the fans of the winning team celebrated by increasing the likelihood that the virus will impact future games; the game’s broadcast was interrupted because the presidential election that was defined by the virus had finally been decided. Notre Dame’s double-overtime win over Clemson was a four-hour thrill ride that captured everything that’s great about this sport—and also everything about why the sport’s continuation cannot be mistaken for a nationwide return to normalcy. It was the game of the season because it was the best game of the season; it was also the game of the season because it provided a perfect snapshot of a season unlike any other.