Expert Cotton Bowl Picks for College Football Playoff: Clemson vs. Notre Dame
Clemson Tigers vs. Notre Dame Fighting Irish, Saturday Dec. 29, 4 p.m. ET
I am man enough to admit that I am a little bored of writing about Clemson in the College Football Playoff. It's not that they don't deserve to be here - they unquestionably do. It's just that this is the fourth straight year that they have been in the playoff. And while things have obviously changed along the way, the formula is the same - strong defense led by an otherworldly defensive line, a very solid offense, and obviously excellent coaching. It's almost robotic at this point. This year Clemson is the only team other than Alabama to rank in the Top 5 nationally on both sides of the ball.
Notre Dame brings less experience to the situation as this is their first playoff appearance. Brian Kelly has led the team to an undefeated regular season once before when he lost to Alabama in the 2013 BCS Championship Game, but that was before the dawn of the playoff. They have a Top 10 scoring defense to measure up to Clemson's, but their offense has not been quite as strong. It's going to be an uphill battle - as the odds certainly suggest.
Clemson at Notre Dame Betting Storylines
It wouldn't take Vince Lombardi to figure out the biggest issue Notre Dame has here. Even if everything went perfectly for them, they don't have an offense that can match Clemson stride for stride. The Tigers scored almost 12 more points per game than the Irish did. Notre Dame is fairly balanced offensively and has been better with Ian Book under center, but it doesn't truly excel at anything. And in this game, it is going to be forced to be one-dimensional. Dexter Williams has had a nice year on the ground, but even with his 941 yards the Irish still only ranked 49th nationally in rushing yards. And now they are up against the fourth-ranked run defense anchored by the best defensive line in the country. Notre Dame is unlikely to be able to run effectively and very likely won't even try too hard to establish the run. That puts the burden on their passing game. On one hand, passing against Clemson is the better approach because it means they don't have to worry about the defensive line as much - as long as Book gets his passes off before the pressure gets to him, that is. But while the secondary is weaker, it is far from weak. Notre Dame is going to struggle to score.
Again, we can figure out the next part without Lombardi. If Notre Dame isn't likely going to be able to score points in bulk, they need to stop Clemson from doing the same. And that is a tall task. Travis Etienne leads an excellent Clemson run attack. Notre Dame has been generally competent against the run, but they can be vulnerable against determined run attacks - Wake Forest ran for 259 yards against them, and Navy racked up 292 yards. Clemson will go at Notre Dame on the ground early and hard. And if (and when) they can establish the run, they will have opened things up for Trevor Lawrence through the air. Lawrence has been very good, but he's still young, so the luxury of a bit more time to pass will benefit him.
Clemson at Notre Dame Odds and Betting Trends
The game opened with Clemson favored by a hefty 11 points, but that wasn't enough - the line has climbed to 12 points in early action. A small majority of bets have been on Notre Dame, so the movement suggests that sharp money has been tilted towards Clemson. The total opened widely at 55, and it has stayed at that level for the most part so far.
The Fighting Irish have covered the spread in their last four neutral-site games. They are 6-2-1 ATS in their last nine games overall and 4-1 ATS in their last five games against ACC opponents. Clemson has gone 7-1 ATS in their last eight bowl games and 11-2 ATS in their last 13 games on neutral fields. They are, however, 0-5 ATS in their last five nonconference games.
Clemson at Notre Dame Predictions and Picks
Notre Dame gets real credit for being unbeaten - that's not an easy thing to do. But they haven't exactly played a tough schedule. Their best win was against Michigan, but the Wolverines did not look nearly as good in that season opener as they did later on - and that team was badly exposed against Ohio State. Stanford, USC and Navy all had off years. So did Virginia Tech and Florida State. They didn't play anyone of real note and still put up only average numbers offensively. Now they are against a much better defense - a dramatic improvement, in fact. That's going to be a problem.
If you give at team as experienced as Clemson a month to prepare for a game like this, they are going to be ready on defense, and it is certainly possible to game plan in ways that will make things difficult for the Irish offense. And Notre Dame is really going to struggle against the Clemson run attack. So, Clemson will score, and Notre Dame will struggle to. This is a whole lot of points to give up, but in terms of experience, strength of attack, depth, and coaching, there is no choice but to take those points and go with the favorite. Notre Dame deserves some respect, but this one feels like a mismatch - at least in terms of what we would expect in a playoff game featuring two unbeaten teams. Clemson is the comfortable play as long as we don't have to give up two touchdowns or more.
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