Clemson shows it's Alabama's only worthy playoff-era foil with rout of Notre Dame

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Pat Forde
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ARLINGTON, Texas — It was all downhill for Notre Dame fans after the eagle.

Clark, the bald eagle who flew around AT&T Stadium during the national anthem and then refused to report back to his handlers, alighted upon two Fighting Irish fans in the stands before being apprehended.

It seemed like a hopeful omen. It wasn’t.

After the eagle had landed, Clemson landed upon Notre Dame like a ton of bricks, 30-3. Very quick bricks. Dabo Swinney’s precocious offensive skill players tore up the Irish, exploiting a secondary that lost All-American cornerback Julian Love to injury in the first quarter. The Tigers defense blanketed Notre Dame receivers, harassed quarterback Ian Book and allowed no rushing play longer than 11 yards.

It was another College Football Playoff semifinal rout, the seventh decided by 17 or more points out of nine played. (Prior to Alabama-Oklahoma on Saturday night.) While the CFP has been an improvement to the sport’s postseason, the semis have been a succession of dispiriting duds.

The latest playoff blowout was further proof that Clemson’s only peer in the playoff era is the Crimson Tide.

The Tigers are 4-2 in CFP games: 3-0 against everyone not named Alabama, 1-2 against the Tide. Clemson’s average winning margin in playoff games against Not Alabama: 26 points. They have pummeled Oklahoma by 20 in 2015; Ohio State by 31 in 2016; and now Notre Dame by 27. That’s quite a succession of blueblood beatdowns.

“Our daily structure prepares us for this moment,” Swinney said. “I always tell them, ‘We’re built for this.”

It also extends what the Tigers have been doing all season. This was their ninth straight win by 20 points or more. They’re a juggernaut that was expected to win big here, and did.

Clemson also is built to last. It will be a national force for years to come.

Look at the list of players who did the most damage against the Irish, and where they’re from — all exported from SEC country:

Quarterback Trevor Lawrence is a true freshman. He threw for 327 yards and three touchdowns Saturday. He’s 6-foot-6, with a cannon of an arm and excellent accuracy and good athleticism and poise far beyond his years. He’s from Cartersville, Georgia. If he’s not the first pick in the 2021 NFL draft, I’ll be surprised — but until then he will be carving up defenses for Clemson.

“He’s just so poised,” Swinney said.

Receiver Justyn Ross is a true freshman. He caught six passes for 148 yards and two touchdowns Saturday, toying with the Irish secondary. Ross is a 6-4 specimen from Alabama who turned down the Tide to become the latest in the pipeline at Wide Receiver U., which is what Clemson has become in the last decade.

“Justyn Ross is just a special talent,” Swinney said. “Big, strong, confident. He’s well prepared. … Amazing what he did.”

Tee Higgins is a true sophomore. He caught four passes for 53 yards, including a spectacular one-handed grab of a deflected pass for the touchdown that broke open the game at the end of the first half. He’s also 6-4, long and strong, a five-star recruit plucked out of Tennessee.

“Those guys are unbelievable,” Lawrence said of his cadre of giant receivers. “They make a lot of plays. Just throw it in an area and they come down with it.”

Travis Etienne is a true sophomore. He ran for 109 yards and a touchdown on just 14 carries. He was the focal point of the Irish defensive effort, and they held him in check for more than a half. Then be broke a 62-yard run for a TD in the third quarter. As many LSU fans will bitterly point out, Etienne is a Louisiana product.

Amari Rodgers is a true sophomore. He caught six passes for 26 yards in a possession-receiver role. Clemson swiped him out of Knoxville.

Basically, everyone who did something notable with the ball for Clemson in the first three quarters Saturday will be back to do more notable things next year. Except receiver Hunter Renfrow, who is actually 53 years old and will finally move on to a retirement home after the championship game.

Dabo is doing work in recruiting. Year after year after year. The Clemson machine is self-sustaining.

“We’re a fun team because we’ve got this veteran leadership,” Swinney said, naming off several seniors. “And then you’ve got this energy and enthusiasm from the young guys.”

Lawrence is the key. He’s the difference between last year’s very good Clemson team that couldn’t move the ball against Alabama and this year’s great team. In terms of championship-level impact, he’s the next Deshaun Watson — at least.

One college head coach told me before the season started that Lawrence was the best QB prospect he’d ever seen coming out of high school. He’s had a freshman year that suggests there is substance behind that superlative. Lawrence came into this game in the top-20 nationally in pass efficiency, and currently has 27 touchdown passes and just four interceptions.

Notre Dame did its best to give him a lot to think about early in the game, disguising coverages and bringing different pressures. But once Lawrence adjusted to what he was seeing — and the offensive line got a handle on things in terms of protection — he was free to throw lasers all over JerryWorld and turn this thing into yet another playoff rout.

It was an embarrassing loss for the Irish, feeding the flames of Domer doubters who didn’t think the school had done enough to merit playoff inclusion. That overreaction fails to take this into consideration: Anyone not named Alabama was going to get shredded by Clemson on Saturday. Again.

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