Notre Dame is as iconic a program or an organization as there is in sports, and a great Fighting Irish team is always going to be in consideration for the College Football Playoff.
Historically speaking, Clemson just isn’t in the same league. Based on recent history, though, the Tigers have been as good as any team in the college game.
The second-ranked Tigers will be making their fourth consecutive appearance in the CFP while the Irish will be making their debut in a national semifinal when they square off Dec. 29 in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic at AT&T Stadium.
Top-ranked Alabama will play No. 4 Oklahoma later that night in the other semifinal at the Capital One Orange Bowl. The Sooners’ proximity to Arlington pushed their game against the Crimson Tide to Hard Rock Stadium in Miami.
Oddsmakers have made the Tigers 11.5-point favorites, and their rich CFP experience gives them an advantage.
“I don’t think there’s any substitute for that,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “What follows is the hype and the distractions that are easy to happen unless you’ve experienced it.”
So, what has Clemson learned over the past three years? Success starts with staying focused on the task at hand and handling adversity when it arises.
When playing the best teams in college football, adversity is going to come.
“This is going to be a few plays, and so there’s going to be a lot of adversity,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “You just got to you just got to hang in there and keep playing and believe that you can get it done down the stretch.
“But it’s awesome to be a part of it. You try to just not make it a huge, bigger moment than what it is, try to minimize the distraction. And just the same things that have won will win this game.”
It’s not like Notre Dame has never been in the spotlight. The Irish play each season at some of football’s best venues, not to mention their own with Touchdown Jesus watching on.
Notre Dame played games this season at Yankee Stadium in a made-for-TV game and have played one of its Shamrock Series games at AT&T Stadium. The Irish might not have experienced CFP pressure, but playing at Notre Dame comes with pressure.
“We’re fortunate in that we play all over the country,” Kelly said. “Obviously, our football team has experienced that just by its travel and being all over the country. So, in a smaller degree, we have to deal with it week in and week out. But there’s definitely an advantage when you’ve been in this before.”
While several Clemson players have CFP experience, quarterback Trevor Lawrence is not one of them. The true freshman became the starter in Week 5 and threw for 2,006 of his 2,606 yards over the next nine games.
Notre Dame also changed starting quarterbacks during the season, with Ian Book replacing Brandon Wimbush in Week 4.
“After that Georgia Tech game, it was obvious that Trevor was the better player,” Swinney said. “And it’s hard, but that’s our job. At the end of the day, it’s to position our team to have the best possible chance to win.”
Notre Dame will be playing in its eighth Cotton Bowl and Clemson just its second, but both will be playing the game at AT&T Stadium for the first time.
“You just got to catch yourself from looking up at the scoreboard all the time,” Kelly said. “It’s just a great environment.”
GOODYEAR COTTON BOWL CLASSIC
No. 2 Clemson (13-0) vs. No. 3 Notre Dame (12-0)
AT&T Stadium, Arlington
3 p.m. Dec. 29, ESPN
The matchup: Clemson routed Pittsburgh on Saturday night to win the ACC championship while Notre Dame, which has no conference affiliation, sat at home in South Bend on its perfect record that included a victory over Michigan to start the season but no other signature wins. Clemson didn’t exactly have it tough during a down year in the ACC, but the Tigers opened the season with a narrow win at Texas A&M.
The Tigers swept the major conference accolades, with running back Travis Etienne taking home Player of the Year and Offensive Player of the Year. Clemson’s quarterback is Trevor Lawrence, a true freshman with a big arm and lots of poise for a teenager. He was the ACC Rookie of the Year. Defensively, the Tigers might have the best defensive line in the country. Defensive end Clelin Ferrell was the ACC Defensive Player of the Year.
Notre Dame features a balanced attack on offense, led by QB Ian Book. The Fight Irish defense didn’t dominate, but have talented players and can get to the quarterback. Defensive end Julian Okwara might be the best player on that side of the ball.
Local tie: There aren’t a lot. Each team has one. Notre Dame used Cedar Hill High quarterback Avery Davis at running back this season in his redshirt freshman season. He carried the ball 22 times for 70 years. Clemson used tight end J.C. Chalk sparingly, as he caught only two passes for 21 yards. The Argyle High graduate has football in his veins. His grandfather is former Dallas Cowboys assistant coach and Alabama head coach Gene Stallings.