No. 3 Clemson seals playoff berth with demolition of No. 2 Notre Dame in ACC championship

The Clemson and Notre Dame sequel wasn’t nearly as dramatic as the original.

The No. 3 Tigers (10-1) locked in a spot in the College Football Playoff with a dominating 34-10 win over the No. 2 Fighting Irish in the ACC championship game. Star Clemson QB and presumptive No. 1 2021 NFL draft pick Trevor Lawrence accounted for three touchdowns as the Tigers’ defense clamped down on a Notre Dame offense that gave it fits in November.

Notre Dame (10-1) beat Clemson 47-40 in double-overtime in South Bend on Nov. 7. Clemson didn’t have Lawrence that night as he was out because of COVID-19. On Saturday, Lawrence’s impact was indisputable. The Clemson offense rebounded from an opening-drive turnover to score 31 straight points after Notre Dame took an early lead.

The Tigers sealed the game in the third quarter when Lawrence ran for a 34-yard TD. He faked a handoff to RB Travis Etienne and sprinted through a hole on the right side of the offensive line for a back-breaking score.

Lawrence’s TD run was a great example of how Clemson figured out a way to run against Notre Dame’s stellar defense. The Tigers rushed for just 34 yards on 33 carries against the Irish in the first matchup as Etienne had 18 carries for 28 yards.

Saturday night, Clemson ran for 215 yards as Etienne averaged over 10 yards a carry.

Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence (16) throws to an open receiver during the first half of the Atlantic Coast Conference championship NCAA college football game against Notre Dame, Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Brian Blanco)
Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence scored three TDs against Notre Dame. (AP Photo/Brian Blanco)

Notre Dame’s wasted first-half chances

The Irish started off well with a field goal and that interception of Lawrence. But things quickly went south from there. Notre Dame got near the end zone on its second drive of the game but Clemson held the Irish to a field goal attempt. And while Jonathan Doerer hit a 51-yard kick to start the game, his 24-yard field goal attempt hit the right upright.

After Clemson followed up the missed field goal with a TD, Notre Dame got into Tigers’ territory again. And again the Irish came away with no points. The Irish eschewed another Doerer field goal attempt on fourth down and appeared to have the conversion after Ian Book rolled to his right and found a wide open Avery Davis. But Davis kept running to the sideline and Book’s pass was just behind him. It fell incomplete.

Clemson scored another TD six plays later.

Will Notre Dame make the playoff?

OK, it’s time to get to the biggest question from the game. Will Notre Dame be in the playoff on Sunday?

The Irish seemed like a safe bet to make the playoff barring a blowout loss. And, well, that blowout loss happened. Is it enough for the committee to push No. 5 Texas A&M ahead of Notre Dame?

Maybe. But Notre Dame has the benefit of beating both Clemson and No. 15 North Carolina in 2020. Texas A&M’s only win over a team currently ranked came against No. 7 Florida. And while the Aggies have liked to point out that they’ve played three more games than Ohio State, Notre Dame has played two more games — and has two more wins — than Texas A&M.

Clemson, meanwhile, seems like a sure bet to be the No. 2 team in the rankings behind Alabama assuming the Crimson Tide win the SEC championship game on Saturday night. That No. 2 spot could seemingly set up a playoff semifinal rematch with Big Ten champion Ohio State as the No. 4 Buckeyes beat No. 14 Northwestern, 22-10, on Saturday for a fourth consecutive Big Ten title.

Trevor Lawrence for Heisman?

It’s not all that farfetched to wonder if Lawrence’s performance and Clemson’s domination put him at the forefront of the Heisman Trophy conversation. Lawrence finished 25-of-36 passing for 322 yards and also rushed 14 times for 90 yards.

Lawrence entered the weekend as the No. 4 betting favorite at BetMGM behind Alabama QB Mac Jones, Alabama WR DeVonta Smith and Florida QB Kyle Trask.

A Florida win over Alabama on Saturday night with a great performance from Trask wins him the Heisman. If both Jones and Smith play well in an Alabama win, things could get interesting.

It’s feasible to see voters being split between Alabama’s star QB and dominant WR. You can make compelling cases for both players and argue how each is dependent on the other for their Heisman candidacy.

Enter Lawrence. An Alabama split opens the door for him to win the Heisman if enough voters are swayed by the way Clemson looked with him on the field. If the Heisman is supposed to go to the best player in college football, it’s hard to argue that Lawrence isn’t the best player at the most important position in the sport.

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