Ladies and gentlemen, the most anticipated game of the year is finally here. A top five matchup featuring the number one ranked Clemson Tigers and the number four ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish. For the ninth time in history, the top ranked team is making their way to South Bend and it is so (and I repeat, SO) unfortunate that there won’t be the typical game day atmosphere at Notre Dame Stadium. These are the types of games that I look forward to every year, the primetime matchups that everyone has circled on their calendars. I’m nervous, I’m excited, and my seatbelt is going to be buckled for tis wild ride that we have ahead of us. So, can the Irish do it? Let’s take a look.
Both the Tigers and the Irish are coming in to Saturday’s showdown undefeated and the story lines are already swirling around the absence of Clemson’s starting quarterback, Trevor Lawrence, due to his positive Covid test. Lawrence was expected to miss at least 10 days after his positive test which ruled him out for Saturday’s game. Rumor has it that he will still be traveling to South Bend and is expected to be on the sideline. Why? I have no idea. But in my opinion, this puts Notre Dame right in between a rock and a hard place. If the Irish pull off the upset, the headlines will blame the loss on the absence of Lawrence and won’t give Notre Dame the credit they deserve. If the Tigers end up winning, the national media is going to bury the Irish after not being able to beat a 5-star “back up” quarterback. I’m not going to jump the gun though, there are facets of the game that are going to allow both teams to have success and that’s what we need to focus on.
When the Irish have the ball, I think the key to success is going to lie in the passing game – and that’s a somewhat unsettling thought. Clemson has ruled out one of their starting defensive linemen and linebacker for Saturday’s game as well. Tiger’s defensive coordinator, Brent Venables, is one of the best in the game and I am sure his defensive schemes are going to cause headaches. As the Irish have relied on the dominance of their offensive line and running game throughout the start of this 2020 season, I expect Venables to stack the box and force the Irish to beat them through the air. For Ian Book and the Irish to get the passing game going early, I believe the tight ends are going to have to be an integral part. Whether it’s finding the weak spots in the defense over the middle or being a safety release when Book is feeling pressure, completions to the Irish tight ends are going to not only open up the passing game, but force Clemson to drop back in coverage and spend less time honing in on the run game. I think Notre Dame will still turn to the running game, as it has been a staple of their offensive identity throughout this season, but relying too heavily on it – especially if Clemson is shutting it down – will bleed out the clock and prove to be a detriment as opposed to the asset that it typically is. When the Irish have the ball, the Tigers will be missing three key defensive players as well. Sophomore linebacker Mike Jones Jr. and sophomore defensive tackle Tyler Davis will be out for Saturday’s matchup with injuries while defensive end Xavier Thomas will sit out the first half after being flagged for targeting in Clemson’s last matchup against Boston College. The Irish will need to take advantage of these starters being out if the want to stay in this game at all.
On the offensive side of the ball for Clemson, we all know the main storyline – Trevor Lawrence will not play due to Covid protocol which means that freshman phenom, D.J. Uiagalelei will make his second career start against the Irish. Uiagalelei has a cannon for an arm which was on display last weekend when he threw for over 340 yards and helped lead the Tigers back from an 18 point deficit against Boston College. Yes, he’s the Tiger’s “back up”, but I can guarantee that he would be starting at about 97% of the schools in Division 1. Uiagalelei will be joined in the backfield with yet another future NFL star in running back Travis Etienne. Etienne, a senior, has set a multitude of records not only at Clemson but for the ACC as a whole. When he has the space, he is an extremely explosive runner and this is where the Irish defense will come into play. If Notre Dame can get the push in the trenches, Etienne will not be able to get a full head of steam and will be just slightly easier to contain. In the passing game, Amari Rodgers is another threat to keep an eye on. This Tigers offense is going to be the most talented that the Irish face all season and they are, without a doubt, going to have their hands full.
Clemson is currently sitting as 5.5 point favorites going into this primetime matchup and as I stated at the beginning, I am beyond excited to see how this game turns out. As what could be the biggest game in Notre Dame Stadium since number one USC came to visit in 2005, I would like to assume that this will be the first of two matchups with Clemson this season, the other coming in the ACC Championship game. With the excitement and anticipation building, my heart keeps telling me to pick Notre Dame to win. My head doesn’t want me to get too far ahead just to be crushed if the outcome doesn’t go in the Irish’s favor. This would be a massive win for the Notre Dame program and I’m going to say that Clemson might be the more talented team on paper, but the Irish will pull off the upset with a 27-24 final score. Yes, I’m picking with my heart and not my head, oh well. Go Irish. Beat Tigers.