After nearly a month of waiting, college football’s playoff kicks off this weekend at 4:00 p.m. when #2 Clemson meets #3 Notre Dame in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic. Both teams enter the game undefeated, but oddsmakers have been lopsidedly in favor of the Tigers over the Irish.
Spread: Clemson -13
While a lot of the talk this season has been about the dominance of Alabama, Dabo Swinney’s Tigers have rolled through the regular season with nearly as much ease. Clemson played just two games all season that were within one possession (Syracuse, Texas A&M) and outside of those two contests, won every game by 20 points or more. The Tigers ranked seventh in offensive S&P+ and were even better on the defensive end sitting atop the final rankings. Freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence took over the full-time quarterback job in late September and finished the year completing 64.8 percent of his passes for 2,606 yards and 24 touchdowns. He was complemented by a strong running game headed by sophomore back Travis Etienne who totaled over 1,400 yards with 21 (!) touchdowns on the season.
As strong as the offense was this season, the defense was better. Opponents often found little success (30.9% success rate) moving the ball, and even when they did, the Tigers mostly held them to field goals or off the scoreboard entirely (3.07 points per scoring opportunity). The other important factor here is health and Clemson is largely healthy outside of receiver Hunter Renfrow who has missed the last two games for unspecified reasons and it’s undetermined whether he will play.
The Irish’s offense has a tall task ahead of it, but things won’t be easy for Clemson’s offense either based on the way Notre Dame’s defense has played this season. Led by linebacker Te’von Coney and defensive lineman Jerry Tillery, Notre Dame ranked 4th in S&P+ while being one of the best in the country at preventing big plays (0.96 IsoPPP). They also weren’t far behind Clemson in terms of points allowed per scoring opportunity (3.27).
On offense, the Irish were very similar to Clemson in that they got better after committing to a quarterback change full-time after the first few weeks. Junior Ian Book took over for senior Brandon Wimbush and finished the season with over 2,400 yards and 19 touchdowns while completing over 70 percent of his passes. Dexter Williams and Tony Jones Jr. combined for over 1,200 yards and 15 touchdowns out of the backfield. The offense wasn’t as strong as Clemson’s in terms of success rate (43.6% vs. 50.4%), but it was slightly more explosive (1.24 vs. 1.20 IsoPPP).
Overall, Notre Dame was better ATS than Clemson this season finishing with a 6-4-2 record and going 1-0 as an underdog (season opener against Michigan). Clemson was just 7-6 and they were 0-4 against the number in non conference games. With the way both defenses have played this season, a 13 point margin seems high. I’ll take Clemson to win, but the Irish will stay within that spread. Notre Dame +13; Under 55