As Notre Dame fans, that was definitely not the outcome we were expecting or hoping for in Saturday’s ACC Championship Game. The Irish fell to the Clemson Tigers 34-10 in a game that should not have been that lopsided. Was it a bad performance on a big stage? Yes. There are many reasons (in my opinion) why the Irish fell flat that I will get into. But the main point that I want to get across is that this one loss should not, and did not, keep the Irish out of the College Football Playoffs. Finishing the season with a 10-1 record and making it to the ACC Championship in our first (and probably only) season in this conference is nothing to be ashamed of and for those who don’t think Notre Dame should have made it into the top four…well I’m not sure what other college football you watched this year.
Offensively, Notre Dame controlled the first 10 or so minutes of Saturday’s rematch against Clemson. Marching down the field with relative ease but stalling out in the red zone. Jonathan Doerer knocked in Notre Dame’s first field goal putting the Irish up 3-0 and on the next Clemson possession, Kyle Hamilton came up with a drive-stopping interception. This is where the outcome of the game could have drastically changed. Notre Dame had the ability to go up 10-0 at this point and really put the game pressure on the Tigers. Instead, the Irish were unable to convert in the red zone and Doerer missed a 24 yard field goal, keeping the score at 3-0. To me, that is where the wheels started to fall off. The Irish offense is not built to come back from large deficits – having to vertically stretch the field and test the opponents secondary. Rather, it’s the methodical, clock controlling drives that have proven successful for Notre Dame. Ian Book finished the game completing 20 of his 28 attempts for 219 yards – a stat line that would not suggest a “blow out” loss. It was Notre Dame’s inability to get the running game going as well as the inside-out pressure that the Clemson defensive line was able to get that really hindered the Irish. Notre Dame’s leading rusher, Kyren Williams, finished the game with only 50 yards on the ground. When the running game gets stopped and the line of scrimmage can’t be controlled by Notre Dame, it leads to a recipe of disaster. Clemson’s defensive coordinator, Brent Venables, took away every single thing that worked for the Irish offense in the first matchup back in November and Tommy Rees didn’t seem to have an answer for that. That was an instance in which coaching experience clearly came into play.
Defensively, Kyle Hamilton led the way for the Irish with six tackles and the one interception but the Notre Dame cornerbacks looked far from their A-games. Shaun Crawford getting beat on long, double moves proved fatal. It sure didn’t help that the same week as this ACC Championship, Notre Dame’s Defensive Coordinator, Clark Lea, accepted the head coaching position at Vanderbilt. Yes, all of the players and coaches gave the canned answer that this was not a point of distraction throughout the two weeks of practice leading up to the game, but I can’t help but think there was some lack of focus on that side of the ball. It didn’t look like the same Clark Lea led defense that we have gotten accustomed to seeing throughout this 2020 season.
Now when it comes to the Irish making the playoffs, I have absolutely no problem ranking them as one of the four best teams this year. What is important to realize is that you cannot make your judgement on this team based on one bad performance against a top tier program. Every team, during every season, has at least one bad game and this is where I have the issue with Ohio State this year. By limiting the amount of games they had to play, they lessened their chances of being susceptible to one of these bad nights, and in my opinion, didn’t deserve a top four ranking come the end of the year. So now the arguments come that (#5) Texas A&M, (#6)Oklahoma, or (#8) Cincinnati should have gotten the number four seed instead over the Irish. Oklahoma lost twice and Notre Dame lost once. Texas A&M lost to Alabama by more than what Notre Dame lost to Clemson by and then what was the Aggies best win? Beating a Florida team that went on to lose to LSU. Notre Dame on the other hand beat a then number one Clemson and a top 15 North Carolina. Cincinnati finished with a lower strength of schedule and strength of record than the Irish and their best win came against a then 16th ranked SMU. In my mind, I just don’t understand the justification to put any of those teams into the playoffs over Notre Dame. Is receiving the fourth seed and having to play Alabama favorable? Absolutely not, but I would make the same argument for any of these teams having to match up with the Crimson Tide, that the game is going to be extremely tough, to say the least. A further breakdown of that matchup will come out closer to the New Year though. Now remember, these are just my opinions and I am no where near a professional. I am proud of everything that the Irish have accomplished this year and to be on of the four teams playing extremely meaningful college football at this time of year is nothing shy of a great accomplishment. Notre Dame has been given a playoff birth for the second time in three years. Go Irish.