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And In That Corner … The No. 2 Clemson Tigers in the Cotton Bowl

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Shake off the Christmas snooze. The holiday is in the past. Notre Dame faces Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinal in just two days. Grace Raynor of The Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C., has been in Dallas for nearly that long already, and it certainly felt much longer as lightning gave North Texas a new understanding of a “white Christmas”, albeit technically a day tardy. As Grace readies to watch the Cotton Bowl in JerryWorld on Saturday (4 ET; ESPN), she took some time to ponder Irish wonderings …

DF: For you this is all old hat. For the Notre Dame side of the Cotton Bowl, calling this a new experience would not suffice. Somehow the Playoff makes the entire experience feel bigger than the BCS title game in 2012 did. Maybe that is an indication the Irish might have a chance, but that feels like an ambitious generalization. I suppose we’re about to get to that. But first … How long have you been covering Clemson?

GR: I started getting my feet wet on the Clemson beat in October 2016 and people always crack up when I tell them that the fourth Clemson football game I covered was the 2016 national championship game the Tigers won with Deshaun Watson and Hunter Renfrow. Since then, I have been on the beat full time since January 2017.

Let’s stick with the long-term view here for a moment, the macro. This is Clemson’s fourth Playoff appearance in a row. If not for that little operation known as Alabama, the Tigers would be the talk of the sporting world, the budding dynasty, etc. What has allowed this long-term success? Obviously the answer starts with head coach Dabo Swinney.

You’re correct in that it all starts with Dabo. This is a coach who has a very specific vision of what he wants his program to look like and he’s incredibly intentional when it comes to making sure that vision is carried out. When he first got the job as the interim coach in 2008, he started putting the pieces together with the people he trusted and the types of players he thought would fit the culture of the program he wanted to create. Swinney has been very up front over the years in his belief that Clemson is not a place every high school recruit in America would be drawn to or thrive in consistently. He has a unique vision and his players have picked up on that. He also has mastered how to balance work with fun, which might be the best tool he offers when it comes to convincing 18-year-old kids to come play for him. Every high school prospect in America has heard of the slide in the indoor facility or has seen the zany videos of Swinney with his team.

In 11 seasons at Clemson, Dabo Swinney has gone 114-30, including double-digit wins in each of the last eight years and Playoff appearances in the last four. (Getty Images)

From a great distance, Dabo seems an intriguing character, certainly an interesting coach to cover. Is that accurate or just the allure from across the country?

That’s definitely accurate. With Dabo, you never quite know what he’s going to say, but you always know it’s going to be something worth your while. In addition to being very thoughtful and passionate, Dabo is also funny and entertaining. He’s not afraid at all to let loose and that makes covering him interesting. What you see on television is what he’s like behind closed doors, too.

His coordinators — co-offensive coordinators Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott and defensive coordinator Brent Venables — have all been in those positions for four years, with Venables tracing back to 2012. Obviously there is intention to that; Clemson pays a premium for such continuity. Meanwhile, Notre Dame’s offensive coordinator Chip Long has been around for two seasons and defensive coordinator Clark Lea is in his first, but both have been excellent. Might they be best tandem Elliott, Scott and Venables have faced this year? Realizing coaching is a much harder thing to quantify than most other aspects of a game, can the Irish match up to Swinney’s top-notch staff?

I know Clemson’s entire staff has nothing but the utmost respect for Notre Dame’s and certainly the Irish are not in the College Football Playoff by coincidence. At this point in the game, the four teams in the Playoff are all elite talents with elite staffs. Jeff Scott was just talking Wednesday about how he has followed Clark Lea’s career. It is Scott’s responsibility each week to study the big plays relinquished by opposing defenses and he said that what he has noticed with Notre Dame is there really aren’t a lot of big plays the Irish relinquish. Venables, Scott and Elliott have been in place for a while, yes. But there’s no shortage of explosiveness or talent on the Notre Dame side, too.

This is a hypothetical. There is no way to ever know the answer. But it is an interesting conversation piece, nonetheless … Would Clemson have finished the season 13-0 if it did not change quarterbacks after four games? It is almost certain Notre Dame would not have gotten this far without its respective switch three games into September.

That’s the million-dollar question. The Tigers, however, were able to go 12-1 and earn a No. 1 College Football Playoff seed under Kelly Bryant just a season ago. It’s easy to forget that.

Less than a year removed from his high school days, Clemson freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence completed 65.0 percent of his passes this season and threw only four interceptions, compared to 24 touchdowns.

Can you elaborate on Trevor Lawrence? He is a true freshman. Notre Dame fans want to believe he might fray under the pressure inherent to the Playoff, to JerryWorld, to facing a very good defense. Does he present as a guy that could happen to? Is his physical skill set just too much for it to matter?

Trevor is one of the most even-keeled athletes I’ve been around. Nothing seems to rattle him and no moment is ever too big for him. In fact, I asked him earlier in the season if anything in his life made him nervous and he admitted he does have some nerves once pregame rolls around on a weekly basis, but by the time kickoff arrives, he just locks in. He has a poise about him that is incredibly unique for a true freshman. That’s what separates him from others and that’s what makes him dominant; no stage is too big.

My notes are headlined, “Both 3rd receivers.” Let’s start with Lawrence’s counterpart, which is probably Hunter Renfrow, specifically, but the real point is the Tigers have four contributing receivers in Tee Higgins, Amari Rodgers, Renfrow and Justyn Ross. How often do they line up together? Will Lea need four cornerbacks to keep up with them? That would be a tough ask. Might a safety suffice, or will that expose the back end? As you can tell, this is the part of Clemson’s offense I am most intrigued by; Notre Dame will not stop running back Travis Etienne (pictured at top) outright, but I do think it can slow him.

Clemson doesn’t do a ton of four-wide sets and prefers to have three wide receivers in with a tight end. But certainly all four of them are dangerous in their own ways. Higgins and Ross are the physical, athletic 6-4 stars that can go up and grab those 50/50 balls. Renfrow is obviously a machine on third down. Rodgers tends to fly under the radar but is a solid contributor. How Notre Dame chooses to defend these receivers could certainly help determine the outcome of this game. I’ll be interested to see what Lea does.

On the flip side, Chris Finke has emerged as a reliable option with Ian Book at quarterback. Does Venables have enough coverage defensive backs available to handle that three receiver look without overly-exposing anyone? I have heard whispers about some suspect safety play.

Clemson’s secondary has been the thinnest part of its defense all year and Venables even admitted as much when he talked about depth over the summer. Clemson’s corners are long, physical and athletic, but the safeties have had their problems. The safeties noticeably struggled when Clemson played South Carolina and Jake Bentley threw for 500-plus yards. Footwork has been poor at times and the Tigers safeties have not had their eyes in the right places at others. Venables has the personnel he believes in, it’s just a matter of consistently executing.

I’ll finish with two catch-alls: Clemson is 13-0 and in the midst of a run unparalleled aside from in Tuscaloosa. Are there weaknesses to speak of?

The secondary is the weakness people talk about the most, though it’s perhaps unfair the Tigers corners get lumped in with some safety struggles. Clemson has also noticeably struggled in the punting game.

And, have I missed anything else? Between the early signing period, this new experience of a Playoff and dreading the holiday week, I very well might have let something slip by me entirely. I realize I did not touch on Clemson’s vaunted defensive live. I know the praise of it is not hyperbolic. Quick routes to Finke strike me as the best chance to mitigate it a bit.

Clemson’s defensive line is the real deal, though obviously their impact could be complicated this week depending on what happens with Dexter Lawrence’s drug test.

Oh, and a prediction? Let’s, for now, presume the spread closes at Clemson by 13.5. (Note: Since this exchange, the line has fallen to Tigers by 12.5.)

Clemson 35, Notre Dame 24