No. 1 Clemson at No. 4 Notre Dame: Who, what, when, where, why and by how much?

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WHO? No. 4 Notre Dame (6-0, 5-0 ACC) vs. No. 1 Clemson (7-0, 6-0).
The veteran quarterback who has never lost at home against a freshman making his first career road start. The senior linebacker rocketing up draft boards against the superstar heretofore-undefendable running back who spurned the draft for one more go-round. Two of the best defensive coordinators in the country and that may be underselling it.

A 22-game home winning streak against a 36-game regular-season winning streak.

WHAT? Quite possibly, maybe even likely, an ACC championship game preview, but more to the point, an evening that will have a direct impact on the College Football Playoff picture. There is no need to frame this contest in historical terms, its present-day notoriety is omnipresent enough.

That said, historical terms are fun preview fodder, and the Irish are 3-5 all-time against No. 1-ranked foes at home, the most recent occurrence being the infamous Bush Push loss in 2005. Those games have had a habit of being worth the hype, the last four occasions decided by a combined 14 points:

1988 — No. 4 Notre Dame 31, No. 1 Miami 30.
1993 — No. 2 Notre Dame 31, No. 1 Florida State 24.
2000 — No. 1 Nebraska 27, No. 23 Notre Dame 24 (overtime).
2005 — No. 1 USC 34, No. 9 Notre Dame 31.

The Irish have faced only one top-10 team at home during Brian Kelly’s 11-year tenure, a 38-17 shellacking of No. 7 Stanford in 2018. Remember this distinction.

WHEN? This matchup was always scheduled for Nov. 7, but when the ACC revamped schedules in August due to the coronavirus pandemic, there was some Notre Dame consternation the conference would move the Clemson date earlier into the season, into better weather, theoretically a perk for the South Carolinians. The Irish would understandably want every advantage they can get against Dabo Swinney’s dynasty.

But the ACC left this tilt for Nov. 7, which in the unpredictable year of 2020, naturally includes 62 degrees and clear skies in South Bend for a scheduled 7:35 ET kickoff.

So much for home-field advantage.

NBC will air a two-part Countdown to Kickoff, beginning at 5:30 ET for 30 minutes and then resuming at 7 ET, hosted by Jac Collinsworth.

WHERE? Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend, Ind., which will also host ESPN’s College GameDay beginning at 9 a.m. Of course, the first remote broadcast of the iconic show was for that 1993 “Game of the Century” against Florida State, though back then, ESPN broadcast from within the Joyce Center.

NBC will have the broadcast, while the game will stream online and via the NBC Sports app. International viewers should be able to gain access via this link.

WHY? Because to be the best, you have to beat the best; the Irish insist they intend to be the best, and Clemson is unquestionably the best these days, even without star quarterback Trevor Lawrence. The Tigers have earned that designation with five consecutive trips to the College Football Playoff, four of those years ending in the national championship game and two of them as the winners.

“You can’t hide it,” senior linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah said Monday. “It is a big game. A lot of people want to say it’s just another game, but you don’t want to hide the elephant in the room. It is something that can increase our value, especially to where we want to go.

“The national championship is always at the forefront of our minds. With having that at the forefront of our minds, you also have to have the team that’s in the way in front of your mind.”

MATCHUP OF THE GAME
When Notre Dame fell, 30-3, to Clemson in the 2018 Playoff semifinal, the game was tied at three after a quarter. Then, Irish junior cornerback Julian Love suffered an injury, missed the second quarter, and the Tigers’ top-tier receivers rattled off three touchdowns, repeatedly targeting Love’s replacement, Donte Vaughn, playing with only one good shoulder. Admittedly, a healthy Vaughn would have struggled to defend Justyn Ross, but the dropoff from Love to a banged-up Vaughn underscored Notre Dame’s greatest flaw back then.

It not only did not have depth, it barely had enough Playoff-caliber starters.

“Congratulations to Clemson, they played well,” Kelly said afterward. “They were opportunistic. They made the plays necessary to win in a game of this fashion. Opportunistic in that we lost one of our very fine defensive backs in Julian Love to a head injury.

“You can’t give up four big plays on defense. We did not do that all year. Uncharacteristic of our defense.”

Love’s injury was not the only reason the Irish lost to the Tigers, but it quickly and dramatically widened the gap.

Nowadays, Notre Dame has a few players capable of hanging with Clemson. It may still lack top-tier depth, but that is true of pretty much every team in the country, as may be evidenced by the Tigers’ defensive middle tonight, missing linebackers James Skalski and Mike Jones, and defensive tackle Tyler Davis.

Both Owusu-Koramoah and Irish sophomore safety Kyle Hamilton would start on any team in the country, including Clemson’s. They are also the two Notre Dame defenders possibly capable of hanging with Tigers running back Travis Etienne. He is averaging just 86.57 rushing yards per game this season, the result of a suspect offensive line that will have its hands full with the Irish defensive line’s depth. But Etienne complements those rushing struggles with 62 receiving yards per game on 15 yards per catch.

Both as a safety valve for freshman quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei and as a deep threat, Etienne has the ability to propel Clemson’s offense all on his own.

Unless Owusu-Koramoah and Hamilton contain him.

BY HOW MUCH?
Despite Lawrence’s absence and Uiagalelei’s second-career start, the Tigers remain 5.5-point favorites, per PointsBet. Frankly, the quarterback substitution did not change the spread much, if at all, most analytical projections two weeks ago setting it at 6 or 6.5, where the line spent most of the week before Swinney ruled out his defensive leaders.

The combined point-total over/under of 50.5 suggests a final tally of 28-23.

Now let’s rattle off some facts …
— Under Brian Kelly, Notre Dame has covered the spread in six of its eight regular-season games against top-10 teams. Only one of those came at home, the aforementioned Stanford route.
— In 2.5 seasons with Clark Lea as defensive coordinator, the Irish have held their opponent below its expected point total in 23 of 32 games, including 10 of their last 12, a stretch that would include every game this season if Florida State had not been gifted two short fields.
— In the same timespan, Clemson has been held to 28 or fewer points six times.
— The Tigers have given up more than 28 points only twice in that stretch: Against the most-prolific offense in college football history in the 2019 national championship game, and in a rivalry game against South Carolina in 2018 in which Deebo Samuel had three touchdowns and more than 200 receiving yards.
— Notre Dame does not have an offense comparable to 2019 LSU or a receiver comparable to Samuel. Yes, this is a fact.

Thus, it is reasonable to expect Clemson to score fewer than 28 points. Given Kelly’s penchant for exceeding expectations in these games, it is just as reasonable to expect Notre Dame to be at least within five points of the Tigers. But given how rarely Clemson gives up more than 28, the Irish are not about to broach that barrier.

To pull off the upset, Notre Dame will need to contain Etienne and Uiagalelei to such an extent they do not even reach 24 or 27 points. That demand begins to be rather steep.

There is every temptation to predict an Irish upset. At home, against a freshman quarterback, etc. But doing so would go back on a preseason prediction: “Arguably the biggest college football game of the year, that top-10 matchup will end with a score more similar to the Bush Push than the 2018 Playoff semifinal, but both were Notre Dame losses and this will be, too, snapping a home winning streak at 22 games, the second-longest in program history.”

Clemson 24, Notre Dame 20.
(6-0 straight up, 3-3 against the spread, 3-3 over/under)

INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
On voting, mental health and Notre Dame’s tight ends’ importance against Clemson
Brian Kelly returns to long view, Clemson ‘not the end-all’ for Notre Dame
Notre Dame ground attack rushes through third downs and opponents
And In That Corner … Clemson’s wounded defense looms for Notre Dame
Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s time ‘on the brink’ will end, win or lose, against Clemson
Notre Dame’s Opponents: North Carolina loss clears Irish, Clemson’s path to ACC title game
30 Years of Notre Dame on NBC: The Bush Push

OUTSIDE READING:
Brian Kelly’s impressive Notre Dame career still missing key element — a big win
How Clemson mastered the art of signal stealing
Clemson DE Xavier Thomas’ tough journey with COVID-19: ‘My symptoms were really bad’
I think the Irish will upset Clemson on Saturday
Can Notre Dame pull off upset against Clemson? Here are 6 keys and a prediction
Is Notre Dame football overrated? Let’s dig into the data
The fourth Playoff spot is up for grabs
The biggest obstacle for each College Football Playoff contender
Stop the count! 10 times sports history would have changed by calling game early
Georgia Tech’s Reveno is voter participation’s unlikely activist
CFB Futures Market: Week 10

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Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Running backs, led by a familiar ‘three-headed monster’

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Notre Dame’s next offensive coordinator will not matter; whomever Irish head coach Marcus Freeman hires to replace Tommy Rees, he will lean on his running backs.

Notre Dame’s running backs room looks the same as it did a year ago, but oh so different. The order has been drastically reshuffled, though through no one’s failure, only youngsters’ successes.

Any new offensive coordinator will know he has three proven backs to lean on with an intriguing youngster joining a promising one slowly recovering from injury. Oh, and the No. 8 running back in the class of 2023.

They will once again be coached by Deland McCullough. Some further coaching turnover could occur yet this offseason, but McCullough looks secure at Notre Dame.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
This space’s running depth chart — running as in ever-evolving, not as in running backs — still has Chris Tyree atop the running backs listing. In-season, the “ever-evolving” depth chart is not updated as much given the week’s prior game lingers in memory and informs more than anything else.

But even in the season opener, Tyree was not the Irish starter. Audric Estimé got that honor at Ohio State. His preseason was strong enough to vault Estimé to the top of the depth chart, a spot he should not relinquish until he heads to the NFL.

Fellow rising junior Logan Diggs also ended up with more carries than Tyree, creating the type of running-back depth needed to be a viable contender in modern college football.

Some Notre Dame fans insist Tyree is a failure. A former four-star running back who has never taken over a season, they argue. But that overlooks a few realities:

First of all, Tyree backed up an All-American for two years. Complementing Kyren Williams’ all-around game with a speed element was vital for the Irish to make the Playoff in 2020 and threaten it in 2021.

Secondly, if the floor of every four-star recruit is to become a four-year contributor with 13-and-counting touchdowns, recruiting would be far easier. Many “can’t miss prospects” fall quite short of that.

Lastly, Tyree’s kickoff return touchdown against Wisconsin in 2021 is now overlooked because of Graham Mertz’s subsequent fourth-quarter meltdown, but if Tyree had not given Notre Dame that lead — flipping a 13-10 deficit to a 17-13 lead — then Mertz never would have needed to get so desperate. There is a very real chance the Irish do not come within a yard of the 2021 Playoff if Tyree does not break that 96-yard kickoff return touchdown.

All of which is to say, Estimé and Diggs leapfrogged Tyree because of their strengths and improvements, not because of any of Tyree’s supposed struggles.

2022 STATS
Estimé: 13 games; 156 carries for 920 yards, a 5.9 yards per rush average, with 11 touchdowns. 9 catches for 135 yards and another score.
Diggs: 12 games; 165 carries for 921 yards, a 5.0 yards per rush average, with four touchdowns. 10 catches for 211 yards and two more scores.
Tyree: 13 games; 100 carries for 444 yards, a 4.4 yards per rush average, with three touchdowns. 24 catches for 138 yards and two more scores.

Of particular note looking at those three running backs, they combined for only 50 yards lost on their 421 carries last season. In the throttling upset of No. 5 Clemson to start November, just two of Notre Dame’s 45 rushes were stopped behind the line of scrimmage.

More notably, the three Irish backs carried the ball 32 times in the Gator Bowl win against No. 19 South Carolina for 205 yards. None of those rushes lost yardage.

After Diggs found full health (an April shoulder injury slowed him into the season) and Notre Dame fully committed to the running backs after quarterback Tyler Buchner was lost for 10 games, the trio averaged 230.5 yards from scrimmage each week.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
Make no mistake, the Irish running backs were as disappointed as anyone when Rees left for Alabama last week. They knew, without a doubt, his offense would feature them. After all, Rees has said he wishes he had grown up as an offensive guard rather than a quarterback if he could choose body type.

They also understood Rees’s decision.

Nonetheless, the trio knows it will be a key piece of Notre Dame’s offense in 2023 for two reasons. One, they are that proven. Two, with Sam Hartman at quarterback, the Irish offense should be more prolific for a change. More snaps and more scoring opportunities will benefit all the skill position players.

The proven “three-headed monster,” as Freeman described them in the 2022 season, should not need to show too much this spring. Estimé needs to hold onto the ball, Diggs needs to find a bit more comfort running between the tackles, and Tyree may spend even more time split wide as a slot receiver, something that was not needed significantly last season because that was often where Michael Mayer aligned.

But those improvements will be on the edges. The three are already known. They will be the most reliable collective piece of Notre Dame’s offense.

The change this spring will be from freshman Gi’Bran Payne. He was the rare delayed signee, de-commiting from Indiana after McCullough left the Hoosiers for South Bend and then eventually following McCullough, committing in mid-April.

Without a spring to impress and behind three stout running backs, Payne never had a viable chance to contribute in 2022. That could change this spring, particularly since classmate Jadarian Price will still be recovering from an Achilles injury, something that usually takes a full year. Price may end up a midseason option, but until then, Payne is Notre Dame’s No. 4 running back, and an injury to any of the leading trio would push No. 4 into a Saturday role.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame adds former four-star Indiana signee, RB Gi’Bran Payne, to incoming freshman class
Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 13 Gi’Bran Payne, freshman running back, late recruit

FUTURE DEPTH
He may not factor in this season — again, the Irish have three proven and reliable, and largely durable, running backs — but consensus four-star Jeremiyah Love will almost assuredly draw some notice in the preseason.

At every step of his decade at Notre Dame, Tommy Rees provided stability otherwise lacking

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He was a three-star quarterback coming from a Chicago suburb with scholarship offers from only two other Power-Five programs. The head coach who recruited him had been fired.

And then Notre Dame needed the freshman quarterback to start against a top-15 team and try to redeem a sub-.500 season. Tommy Rees threw three touchdown passes to upset No. 15 Utah. He completed 13-of-20 passes to avoid any distinct mistakes, an immediate 180-degree turn from how the previous week ended with Rees filling in as an injury replacement. The Irish did not want to lean on him too much, hence only 129 passing yards, but he delivered.

“Everything in our game plan was you’ve got to run the football, we’ve got to be high-percentage in our throws and not put Tommy in too many positions where we could turn the ball over,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said in November 2010. “I wasn’t going to put this game on Tommy Rees.”

Kelly would, in time, put many games on Tommy Rees. At the outset, though, he continued to rely on the Irish ground game to rattle off a four-game win streak and turn a 4-5 debut season into an 8-5 finish with resounding momentum. Notre Dame ran the ball 144 times in those four games compared to 106 pass dropbacks (sacks adjusted).

RELATED READING: 30 Years of Notre Dame on NBC: Tommy Rees’ first career start, an upset exaggerated

Most memorably, the game-winning drive at USC featured five rushes and only two passes, taking a lead with just two minutes left to snag the first Irish win at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum since 2000.

Kelly turned back to Danye Crist to start the 2011 season and quickly flipped to Rees after only a half. In 2012, Kelly called on Rees in the most critical of moments to steady freshman quarterback Everett Golson. Then when Golson was suspended for the 2013 season, Rees was again thrown into the chaos and dragged Notre Dame to a respectable season rather than one lost in all sorts of ways.

At every step of his playing career, Rees provided the Irish stability when it was otherwise absent. He would do that again these past six years as an assistant coach.

First, he showed up expecting to be the 10th assistant coach only for the NCAA to delay that implementation, forcing Rees to become a graduate assistant, both adding coursework to his workload and removing his ability to coach the Irish quarterbacks in practices.

Then he threaded the delicate needle of a midseason quarterback change in 2018 even though Notre Dame had not lost a game. Keeping both Brandon Wimbush and Ian Book engaged with the team and moving forward propelled the Irish to the College Football Playoff, a direct counter to the quarterback debacle that torpedoed the 2016 season. Doing that while under an abrasive offensive coordinator who has continued to burn his way out of subsequent coaching jobs makes the player relations that much more impressive.

When Chip Long was fired following the 2019 season, Rees took over the offense for a resounding — and decently unexpected — throttling of Iowa State in the Camping World Bowl.

Obviously, 2020 brought instability to everyone in every industry, including college football. Rees’s offense averaged 6.2 yards per play, the No. 4 most explosive offense of Kelly’s 11 years at Notre Dame.

In 2021, Rees worked with three quarterbacks to keep the Irish in Playoff contention. Again, his ability to prop up the psyche of the most important position in college football was the key to Notre Dame’s success, particularly as the head coach was apparently actively planning his exit from South Bend. Of course, Kelly’s abrupt departure gave Rees the biggest platform in his Irish career to buttress the program, to provide stability, to secure its future.

When Rees turned down Kelly’s LSU overtures — “I’m [bleepin’] staying,” Rees told his offense — he eased Freeman’s first-year learning curve by magnitudes. The former defensive coordinator knew what offense would be run in 2022 and that he did not need to worry about it much. For the second consecutive Irish head coach’s maiden voyage, Rees led a late-season surge, potentially setting the tone for his first few seasons.

RELATED READING: Tommy Rees turns down Brian Kelly’s LSU overture and will remain at Notre Dame
Jack Swarbrick, Marcus Freeman and Tommy Rees brought stability to Notre Dame long before and obviously after Brian Kelly sowed chaos

In literally every one of his 10 years at Notre Dame, Rees navigated choppy waters.

He turned Ian Book into an NFL quarterback who could win a Super Bowl ring this weekend. He won eight games with Drew Pyne as his starter. Those may not be the accolades of a “quarterback whisperer,” but finding success with talent as questioned as he once was proved Rees’s bona fides enough that the greatest coach in college football history came calling.

Rees owed Notre Dame nothing.

That is not, “Rees no longer owed Notre Dame anything.” It is that he never did.

He played four strong seasons as a quarterback in undesirable situations at every turn. Whatever debt a player owes his school, Rees paid then.

There is no further loyalty or obligation owed to an alma mater. The expectation of one says more about those conjuring those expectations than anyone else.

Coaching for Nick Saban is a clear step forward in a young coach’s career, no matter what transfer quarterback has arrived in South Bend this winter.

For that matter, by recruiting Sam Hartman, Rees provided Notre Dame some stability for an 11th year, rather notable for someone who spent only a decade at the university.

RELATED READING: Opportunities abound for Tommy Rees, earned recognition after a decade at Notre Dame

Lengthy Texas cornerback joins Notre Dame class of 2024

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Maybe Benjamin Morrison and Jaden Mickey will be anomalies, but if they are precedent-setters, then Notre Dame may have snagged another unheralded but promising cornerback with the Saturday afternoon commitment of consensus three-star Leonard Moore (Round Rock High School; Texas).

Moore also holds scholarship offers from Oregon, TCU and Vanderbilt, to name a few. In total, he has offers from six schools in the Pac-12, three in the Big 12, two in the SEC and one in the ACC, an intriguing widespread array from someone not yet lighting recruiting rankings on fire.

At 6-foot-2, Moore should have the length to become a physical cornerback, one perhaps more in the mold of current Notre Dame fifth-year cornerback Cam Hart than the rising sophomore Morrison.

Moore’s highlight reel starts with a few interceptions, naturally, and a punt return. Pass breakups are not necessarily the most enthralling of film. But then he sheds a block to force a fumble and soon defends a back-shoulder throw with ease. Moore is clearly a playmaker, particularly given no level of Texas football should be scoffed at. He intercepted three passes, forced two fumbles and broke up four passes in 2022 as a junior.

He readily anticipates routes and when needed funnels his man as the defensive design demands.

Moore runs track, as well, with decent 200-meter times in the low 23-second range.

The eighth commitment in the class of 2024, Moore is the second defensive back, joining consensus three-star cornerback Karson Hobbs (Archbishop Moeller; Cincinnati). While team recruiting rankings are thoroughly premature more than 10 months before anyone can officially sign, thoroughness demands mentioning that Notre Dame’s class is currently ranked No. 2 in the country behind only Georgia with 10 commitments.

RELATED READING: An early look at Notre Dame’s seven commits in the class of 2024, including QB CJ Carr

A cursory look at the depth chart suggests Moore could have an avenue to early playing time in South Bend. Hart likely will move on to the NFL after the 2023 season, a shoulder injury tipping the scales toward returning this offseason. Aside from him, the only cornerbacks with experience on the Irish roster are Morrison and Mickey and rising senior Clarence Lewis. Any of the four young cornerbacks that do make an impression in 2023 will effectively be on equal footing with Moore.

Reports: Tommy Rees heads to Alabama after 10 total years at Notre Dame

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If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

Tommy Rees will leave Notre Dame to do just that, heading to be the offensive coordinator at Alabama, according to reports Friday afternoon. Nick Saban and the Tide denied Rees a national championship as a player in 2012 and a title game appearance as an offensive coordinator in 2020.

The South Bend Tribune‘s Mike Berardino first reported Rees’s decision, coming a day after reports initially surfaced that Rees was Alabama’s preferred choice for the gig, and he had flown to Tuscaloosa to consider the position.

Those unbeaten regular seasons, along with one in 2018 as the Irish quarterbacks coach, were the high points of Rees’ total of a decade with the Notre Dame football program. Like his former head coach, he will now head to the SEC chasing a higher peak.

Of course, Rees spurned Brian Kelly’s invite to join him at LSU last winter, instead memorably telling the Irish offensive players, “I’m [bleepin’] staying,” setting the tone for the first week of Marcus Freeman‘s tenure as Notre dame head coach.

RELATED READING: Tommy Rees turns down Brian Kelly’s LSU overture and will remain at Notre Dame
Jack Swarbrick, Marcus Freeman and Tommy Rees brought stability to Notre Dame long before and obviously after Brian Kelly sowed chaos

Alabama made an offer Rees could not refuse, even if a year ago he said, “I love this place (Notre Dame). I believe that we can win a national championship here, and I’m committed to doing everything we can to get to that point.”

Going to Tuscaloosa does not render those words empty. Rees is going to work for the greatest college football coach in history in a role that has repeatedly springboarded coaches to better opportunities. Since Saban arrived at Alabama in 2007, his offensive coordinators have gone on to be, in chronological order, the assistant head coach at Texas (Major Applewhite), head coach at Colorado State (Jim McElwain), offensive coordinator at Michigan (Doug Nussmeier), head coach at Florida Atlantic (Lane Kiffin), head coach at Texas (Steve Sarkisian) and offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots (Bill O’Brien).

Thus, Rees is bettering both his chances at a national title in the short term and his presumed path to whatever gig he wants next in the long term.

He leaves Notre Dame after three seasons as the Irish offensive coordinator, which came after three years as the quarterbacks coach. The Irish have ranked No. 41, No. 19 and No. 30 in scoring offense the last three seasons, peaking with 35.2 points per game in 2021, the second-highest total in Brian Kelly’s tenure.

But perhaps Rees’s finest moment as a Notre Dame assistant came when he finessed a mid-season quarterback switch to Ian Book from Brandon Wimbush despite the Irish remaining unbeaten throughout 2018. In some respects, Rees threaded a similar needle in 2021, incorporating Wisconsin graduate transfer Jack Coan, then-freshman Tyler Buchner and spot-reliever Drew Pyne; each quarterback could be credited as responsible for at least one win as the Irish made a Playoff push.

Then this past season, Rees responded to Buchner’s shoulder sprain that cost him 10 games by working with Pyne to piecemeal an offense.

From December of 2021:

Rees has considered leaving his alma mater before, reportedly interviewing to be Miami’s offensive coordinator in recent years, not to mention weighing Kelly’s offer from LSU 14 months ago, as well as a previous brief dalliance with Alabama a few years ago.

After leading Notre Dame’s offense in one way or another for 10 of the last 13 years, Rees has finally opted to do so elsewhere. It just so happens to be as part of the team that twice turned back the Irish and now faces Kelly every fall.