Championship Week has arrived, and the rematch everyone was hoping for fell into place in the ACC Championship Game. No. 2 Notre Dame and No. 3 Clemson meet for the second time, after playing in a double-overtime, instant classic, earlier this season.
Notre Dame looks to win a conference championship for the first time, and perhaps the last, in their historic history, while Clemson looks for their 6th straight Conference Title and College Football Playoff berth. The Playoff Committee will be keeping a close eye on this game, as both teams currently sit in the top 4 of the rankings.
Trevor Lawrence Returns
When Notre Dame brought an end to Clemson’s 36-game winning streak in regular-season games back in November, they did it without having to face Trevor Lawrence. Lawrence is the presumptive number one pick in the upcoming NFL draft, and he is the best quarterback in college football. Even though his backup, Dj Uiagalelei, played like a future star during Lawrence’s absence due to Covid, there is no replacing the Tigers’ leader. Lawrence wasn’t available when Clemson traveled to Notre Dame in November, and they were still able to push the then-No. 4 teams in the country to double overtime.
The Ascension of Ian Book
For a guy who will leave Notre Dame as the All-time winningest quarterback in history, and have his name all over the Notre Dame record books, Ian Book doesn’t seem to get the love he deserves. Some of the criticisms throughout his career have been warranted, but Book seemed to use the Clemson game as a springboard into another dimension of quarterbacking many didn’t think he could reach.
Since leading the Irish on a 91-yard drive in the final two minutes of the game, sending it into overtime, Ian Book has been one of the best players in college football. Dabo Swinney, the coach of Clemson, even had high praise for Book the other day, comparing him to a Notre Dame Legend. “I hate to compare him to Joe Montana, but he has a little bit of magic to him and he is a great player,” Swinney told the media members. Book will need to bring some of that magic with him to Charlotte in order to take down Clemson for a second time this season.
The story of the first matchup was the health, or lack thereof, on the Clemson side. The Tigers were missing their quarterback on offense, but they were also missing their quarterback on the defensive side. Linebacker James Skalski, a graduate Senior, is the leader of the Clemson defense and missed the first matchup against the Irish. Skalski missed three games this season but came back 3 weeks ago to play against Pitt. He was limited to only 5 snaps, however, against Virginia Tech in the team’s most recent game. Coach Swinney and Defensive Coordinator Brent Venables are hopeful he will be ready to go in Charlotte.
Along with Skalski, Clemson was also missing two additional defensive starters, defensive tackle Tyler Davis and linebacker Mike Jones Jr, against the Irish. Both should be back in the lineup for the ACC Championship.
On the other side, Notre Dame will be without starting center Jarrett Patterson, who had season-ending surgery on his foot. His backup, Zeke Correll has also been hampered by an ankle injury, and Coach Brian Kelly said it would be a game-time decision between Correll and Senior Josh Lugg to start at the center position.
Notre Dame dominated the line of scrimmage against Clemson in the first matchup. Now, however, Clemson is healthier and Notre Dame has lost an important piece in the middle of an offensive line that could win the Joe Moore Award for Best Offensive Line in the country.
Sitting at No’s 2 and 3 in the College Football Playoff rankings, both Notre Dame and Clemson are square in the mix for a berth into the CFP. This will be the most highly watched game on Championship Weekend as it has the potential to shake things up when it comes to the rest of the Playoff field. The winner of this game is a lock to make it into the Playoff, most likely as the 2-seed. If Notre Dame wins, they will complete an undefeated season and are in. In that scenario, Clemson will be dealt their second loss of the season, most likely ending their playoff streak at 5. No two-loss team has ever made the playoff in its 6-year span.
Clemson winning the ACC Championship will bring the most headache for the Playoff Committee. If they win, they will clinch their 6th straight ACC Title and 6th straight Playoff berth. But what happens to Notre Dame? Unless Notre Dame comes out and gets the doors blown off, losing by several touchdowns, I believe they have done enough already to earn a Top 4 seed. Would the committee let Texas A&M jump Notre Dame when they both have 1 loss and A&M lost by 4 touchdowns to No. 1 Alabama? I doubt it, but Notre Dame doesn’t want to give the committee a chance.
Prediction and Picks
Current odds via FanDuel as of Saturday, December 19 (10:00 am ET)
Money Line: Clemson Tigers -420 | Notre Dame Fighting Irish +310
Point Spread: Clemson Tigers -10.5 (-106) | Notre Dame Fighting Irish +10.5 (-114)
Total Over/Under: Over 59.5 (-112) | Under 59.5 (-108)
Clemson is coming in as a big favorite to avenge their loss from November. Clemson was a 5.5 point favorite in that first matchup even without Lawrence. I expect this game to be another battle. The key will be whether a healthy Clemson defense will be able to slow down the Irish rushing attack and keep Ian Book in the pocket. Dj Uiagalelei threw for 439 yards in the first matchup, and now the Irish will have to deal with Lawrence. I don’t expect him to throw for 400+ yards in this game, but he has more ability in the running game than Uiagalelei. Perhaps that will help Running Back Travis Etienne, who Notre Dame held to 28 yards on 18 carries the first time.
I expect another close game, hopefully as exciting as the first. 10.5 points seem like too many points to me, and I expect it has been a rallying cry in the Irish locker room. What more do Brian Kelly and his team have to do to earn respect as one of the top teams in the country? They will come out fired up again, looking to establish the line of scrimmage early. I expect both defensive units are going to play better this time around, and it will come down to the heroics of the quarterbacks to make special plays. In that case, I have to pick Trevor Lawrence to come through for his team in the end, and Clemson to take home their 6th straight ACC Championship trophy. Clemson wins, but Ian Book and Notre Dame will do enough to remain in the Top 4 for the playoff. Clemson 31, Notre Dame 27