No. 2 Clemson vs. No. 3 Notre Dame: Cotton Bowl preview and predictions

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No. 2 Clemson (13-0) vs. No. 3 Notre Dame (12-0)

Location: Arlington, Texas | When: Dec. 29 (4 p.m.) | TV: ESPN | Line: Clemson -13

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HOW THESE TEAMS GOT HERE

Notre Dame: Starting with a home win over Michigan, Notre Dame opened the season 3-0. However, Brian Kelly wasn’t satisfied with the offense (23.3 ppg) — especially through the air. That caused a quarterback switch with Ian Book being inserted as the starter over Brandon Wimbush. The move paid off. With Book’s accuracy and efficiency in the short and intermediate passing game, the offense took off and propelled the Irish to an undefeated regular season. The return of Dexter Williams from suspension gave the Irish a tremendous boost as well. There were a few close calls along the way, but a 24-17 road victory over USC eventually clinched a 12-0 season and berth in the College Football Playoff.

Clemson: Like Notre Dame, Clemson also made a quarterback change. The Tigers were 4-0 when Dabo Swinney officially made the switch from playing both senior Kelly Bryant and five-star freshman Trevor Lawrence to naming Lawrence the starter. That caused Bryant to transfer and led to a close call when Lawrence was injured during his first start against Syracuse. Thanks to third-stringer Chase Brice, Clemson survived that one with a 27-23 win. And when Lawrence returned the following week, that started the Tigers’ easy march through ACC play where they won the rest of their games by an average of 38.25 points.

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Dabo Swinney has Clemson back in the College Football Playoff for the third time. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton, File)
Dabo Swinney has Clemson back in the College Football Playoff for the third time. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton, File)

THREE THINGS TO WATCH

Can Notre Dame keep Clemson’s skill position players in check? Trevor Lawrence has been tremendous as a true freshman, throwing for 2,606 yards, 24 touchdowns and only four interceptions while completing 65 percent of his passes. Lawrence’s group of receivers is deep and superbly athletic. Guys like Tee Higgins, Justyn Ross, Amari Rodgers and Hunter Renfrow (of course) can do it all.

They can run past you. They can jump over you. They can beat you with precise route running. And when the Notre Dame defense keys too much on those wideouts, Lawrence can hand the ball to running back Travis Etienne. In the years where Clemson has been in the national title mix, it hasn’t had a back like Etienne. The sophomore has 1,463 yards and 21 touchdowns while averaging 8.3 yards per rush. That’s a ton for the Irish to keep up with.

How does Notre Dame handle Clemson’s defensive front? Clemson is a well-rounded team. But more than anything, it is known for its ferocious defensive line where all four starters are All-ACC performers. So how does Notre Dame combat that? Perhaps one place where the Irish have an advantage is in the quick passing game. If you get Ian Book, one of the national leaders in completion percentage, into a rhythm, he can take advantage of the size advantage of his receiving corps (ND’s top three receivers are all 6-foot-4 or taller) compared to Clemson’s secondary. If Book can get rid of the ball quickly, the Irish can neutralize Clemson’s pass rush. A strong effort from the offensive lineman will be crucial as well.

One of Clemson’s best players is suspended: Clemson will actually be short handed on that defensive front. Tigers coach Dabo Swinney announced Monday that three of his players — defensive lineman Dexter Lawrence, offensive lineman Zach Giella and tight end Braden Galloway — failed drug tests due to the presence of ostarine, a banned substance considered by a performance-enhancing drug by many sporting bodies.

Lawrence is, by far, the headliner of that trio. The junior defensive tackle has been a three-year starter on the interior and is a projected first-round pick should he enter the 2019 NFL draft. With Lawrence out of the picture, Notre Dame could have some room for senior running back Dexter Williams (941 yards, 12 TDs) to run.

[Pat Forde: How Notre Dame built itself into a college football power without top recruiting classes]

Notre Dame running back Dexter Williams is averaging 6.6 yards per carry in his career. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File)
Notre Dame running back Dexter Williams is averaging 6.6 yards per carry in his career. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File)

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Dexter Williams, RB, Notre Dame: With Josh Adams now in the NFL, Williams was expected to step in as Notre Dame’s top back after averaging 9.2 yards per carry in 2017. But he was suspended for the first four games of the 2018 campaign. When Williams finally returned, he made a big impact. In his first two games, Williams rushed for 339 yards and four touchdowns, including a 97-yard scoring burst in the road win over Virginia Tech. Later in the year, Williams had 142 yards and three touchdowns against Navy and 202 yards and two scores against Florida State. In eight games, Williams has 941 yards on 6.6 yards per carry.

Clelin Ferrell, DE, Clemson: With Dexter Lawrence out, fellow defensive tackle Christian Wilkins is going to have to step up as a run-stuffer, especially on early downs. But Clelin Ferrell, Clemson’s ace defensive end, has the potential to be a major disruptive presence in both the running game and as a pass-rusher. Ferrell had his breakout performance in the College Football Playoff two years ago. Now he’s a known commodity, but still has been wildly productive. Entering Saturday’s game, Ferrell has a career-high 10.5 sacks to go with 17.5 tackles for loss.

PREDICTIONS

Nick Bromberg: Clemson 34, Notre Dame 27
Sam Cooper: Clemson 44, Notre Dame 30
Pat Forde: Clemson 34, Notre Dame 21

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