Maybe Chris Simms is biased. He admits he “wants” Notre Dame to beat Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinal on Saturday in Dallas, but the NBC Sports analyst also actually thinks the difference between the two teams has been exaggerated in this month layoff, he said to NBC Sports’ Mike Tirico on Tirico’s eponymous weekly podcast heading into the holiday weekend.
“You always think that the skill guys on Notre Dame are going to be a little underwhelming,” Simms said. “I just think through the last two years, I have seen a lot of NFL talent at Notre Dame, whether it is NFL tight ends, NFL wide receivers, (senior) Dexter Williams is an NFL running back this year. You go down the lines, I just think this is a much more impressive roster than people give it credit for.”
It did not take an unbeaten run to the Playoff for Simms to start thinking that, either. A loss planted the seed in his head, specifically the 20-19 loss to Georgia back in September 2017, one of only three Irish losses in their last 25 games.
“I was one to tell you that Notre Dame was usually overrated most years in the last 10-15 years. They got a few spots bump up in the rankings on a weekly basis because they were Notre Dame and their history and all those things,” Simms said. “… We watched them on the field vs. Georgia, and Georgia gave Alabama everything they could handle on the field this year, last year. You and I saw a game where Notre Dame was definitely in the class of a Georgia as far as the physicality.”
That Georgia defensive front may have been the best the Irish have faced the last two seasons, a title the Tigers will take Saturday, with or without defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence. Yet, Simms sees the Cotton Bowl as a “50/50 ball game,” despite a 12.5-point spread in Clemson’s favor. Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long’s approach should help negate some of that up-front Tigers advantage.
In an attempt to get a balanced view from Simms, to be sure that acknowledged bias was not clouding his assessment, Inside the Irish asked him if any weakness along the Irish offensive line could be compounded against Clemson. Simms did not take the bait.
“They’re going to lose a few plays in this match-up across the board, but I would be shocked if Notre Dame got overpowered by Clemson’s defensive line in this match-up,” Simms said. “Not to say they’ll win or dominate it, but I don’t think Clemson’s defensive line is going to ruin this game for Notre Dame.
“This offense has a very advanced running scheme for college football. In the day of the spread offense, they’re pulling guards, they’re pulling tackles and running trap plays — old-school tactics that college defensive linemen don’t see on a weekly basis. Chip Long has found a good combination of old school and new age.”
Of course, as Simms told Tirico and has been discussed writ large since September, that balance was not possible for Long’s offense while senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush limited the passing game with inaccuracy. Junior quarterback Ian Book’s handle of the passing game and the needed progressions opened up Long’s system in a way that might work well against Clemson’s No. 1 defense in the country.
“What Ian Book did was give them a drop-back pass offense where he could go through reads. He gave Chip Long the ability to call professional pass game schematics, and he had a quarterback he knew he could trust to read the field correctly and put the ball on the money the majority of the time,” Simms said. “That’s when the offense went to the next level.
“Defenses go woah, we have to stop this offensive line and this run game (and this pass attack).”
To hear Simms further discuss when he first noticed Book, the Irish offensive line or his expectations for the weekend, give him and Tirico a listen via iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever else you may get your podcasts.