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The Playoff is set; Notre Dame draws Clemson

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The committee has spoken, the Playoff field is set, and for the first time, Notre Dame will be a participant. The No. 3 Irish will meet No. 2 Clemson in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas on Dec. 29 (4 ET; ESPN) before No. 1 Alabama faces No. 4 Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl in Miami.

This is what was expected after Notre Dame finished its season unbeaten a week ago and the other three won their respective conference championship games Saturday. And now these two matchups will be the primary conversation for the next four weeks.

As it pertains to the Irish and the Tigers, Clemson is a distinct favorite. The two had four common opponents, and the Tigers handled their business better against three of them. The exception came with star freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence injured for most of the game against Syracuse, while Notre Dame conversely knocked out Orange senior quarterback Eric Dungey for much of their respective contest.

Notre Dame 56, Wake Forest 27 — Clemson 63, Wake Forest 3.
Notre Dame 19, Pittsburgh 14 — Clemson 42, Pittsburgh 10.
Notre Dame 42, Florida State 13 — Clemson 59, Florida State 10.
Notre Dame 36, Syracuse 3 — Clemson 27, Syracuse 23.

That is hardly why the Tigers are the favorite in this instance. It is simply the visible result of the underlying facts, the tip of the iceberg so to speak.

The Irish have thrived with junior Ian Book starting at quarterback, averaging 306.88 passing yards per game in his eight starts. He’ll face his toughest challenge to date by far — Clemson limits opponents to 198.4 passing yards per game. Book’s 70.36 completion percentage is No. 5 in the country, but Tigers’ opponents completed just 52.799 percent of their passes.

They did not entirely rely on shutting down poor passing attacks to do so. North Carolina State’s Ryan Finley finished the season with the No. 24 passer rating in the country and the ACC all-conference honors began with him as a headliner; Finley is a quality quarterback and one about to generate some interesting draft discussions. Against Clemson, though, Finley went 21-of-34 for just 156 yards with two interceptions and no touchdowns.

Counterpoint: South Carolina’s Jake Bentley bolstered his rating, which ended at No. 20 in the nation, with 510 yards, five touchdowns and 10.2 yards per attempt two weeks ago at Clemson.

Notre Dame might average 200.1 rushing yards per game (sacks adjusted), but the Tigers allow only 114.2. And speaking of sacks, Clemson has racked up 45 this season, led by senior end Clelin Ferrell’s 10.5, one of four Tigers linemen who will populate the first two days of the NFL draft in a few months, three of which were named first-team All-ACC and the fourth landed on the conferences third-team.

Asked for his brief thoughts on Clemson during ESPN’s rankings reveal show, Irish head coach Brian Kelly did not hesitate, “Obviously, you start with their defensive front …”

On the other side of the ball, the Irish defense has not given up 30 points since the 2017 regular-season finale at Stanford, a 13-game stretch. Clemson has averaged 45.4 points per game this year, including 56 on the No. 37 scoring defense in the country, South Carolina and its 22.7 points per game average.

It’s an offense equally-dependent on the run and the pass, averaging 267.2 rushing yards (sacks adjusted) and 270.1 passing yards per game. Even the play calling is rather split, with 449 pass attempts (plus sacks) compared to 486 rushes, which of course includes some Lawrence scrambles on intended pass plays.

The Tigers are a complete football team, one that has made four straight Playoffs, winning the national championship in 2016 and going 53-4 thus far in that stretch. The Irish will have their work cut out for them.