No. 2 Notre Dame vs. No. 3 Clemson: Who, what, when, where, why and by how much?

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WHO? No. 2 Notre Dame (10-0, 9-0 ACC) vs. No. 3 Clemson (9-1, 8-1).

WHAT? The Atlantic Coast Conference championship game. That’s right, the Irish are chasing conference hardware. This is what 2020 has driven us to.

More than that, this may be a play-in game for whatever will inevitably replace the Rose Bowl. Presuming No. 1 Alabama dispatches No. 7 Florida once and for all — and unless the sun rises in the west and sets in the east, consider it assured — then the ACC champion will end up No. 2 in the final Playoff rankings and not be heading to the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans.

Common sense suggests the winner will not head to Pasadena, either. Irish head coach Brian Kelly drew a line in the sand Friday: He has no intentions of quietly traveling to the West Coast (to face a team from no further west than Texas) to play in an empty stadium forbidding even the parents of his players from attending. Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney agreed with Kelly in every way but figurative volume.

“It would be really sad at this point to be in a Playoff game and these players’ families couldn’t be there,” Swinney said. “That would be a poor decision, and again, a year where everybody’s had to have flexibility and make adjustments along the way, that would be a mistake.”

The momentum of this reality had been building for a couple weeks before Kelly gave it a public voice Friday. Frankly, the momentum had been building for nine months and the pandemic’s surge in recent weeks sealed it, yet the College Football Playoff committee and its executive management opted to cross their fingers and hope things would resolve themselves. The federal government tried that approach for nine months; it clearly does not work.

So Kelly spoke up, and while he may not have the cache of Swinney or Alabama head coach Nick Saban, he has plenty thanks to the interlocking ND on his quarter-zip, and the Playoff committee will have little choice but to scramble to a solution before announcing the semifinal matchups on Sunday.

OKAY, BACK TO THE GAME: Well, hold on. Rose Bowl lunacy aside, this is a play-in game to avoid Alabama in the semifinal. If Notre Dame loses, it is presumably headed to the No. 4 seed (thus avoiding an immediate rematch of this rematch) and a date in New Orleans. While if Clemson loses, the Tigers may be out of the Playoff for the first time in six years and star quarterback Trevor Lawrence’s college career could be over. Their best-case scenario could be a controversial No. 4 seed and a shot at ‘Bama.

WHEN? 4 ET on ABC. In something of a 2020 oddity, every Irish game away from South Bend has been a late afternoon kickoff on the alphabet. If pondering a continuation of that theme, then know the Rose Bowl kicks off at 5 ET, while the Sugar Bowl will follow it at 8:45 ET. Admittedly, that order is to cater to Pasadena’s sunset, and that may no longer be a concern once the semifinal is moved to Indianapolis or Dallas or Phoenix, but the order of kickoff would likely remain the same.

WHERE? Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, N.C., where Notre Dame was scheduled to play Wake Forest this season before all plans were scrapped by the obvious. The stadium is allowed to hold 7 percent its capacity, 5,240 fans, just as it has for Carolina Panthers games to date.

That worries local health authorities, though, as the key difference between Panthers games and this conference title game is the vast majority, if not all, of those 5,240 Panthers fans come from the surrounding area.

“Would I prefer [the ACC title game] not be held? Yes, I would prefer not, because there are fans coming in from other parts of the country that are not part of our community, and I think right now is not the best time for that to happen,” said Gibbie Harris, the Mecklenburg County Public Health Director, to the Charlotte News & Observer. “… I don’t know that we’ve seen a lot of people traveling in for those (Panthers) games. So that’s what concerns me more about these two games, is the fact that it’s not local people coming in to see these games.

“We’re looking at folks from other states.”

Harris’ point is valid, and it is partly why Kelly and Swinney did not advocate for widespread fan attendance in the Rose Bowl or its replacement. They argued for the families of their players, families they will not see at Christmas as they focus on Playoff preparations. It may not be the ideal situation, but it is an understandable ask.

WHY? Why a rematch? Why play this game if both Clemson and Notre Dame could slide into the Playoff without it? When you have the chance to beat the best college quarterback of the decade and the current dynasty, there is no thought of skipping that opportunity.

“If we could play Friday, yeah, the guys would want to play Friday,” Kelly said. “… You get to that point where you’re like, can we get this on now? We know Clemson, they know us.”

On top of that, an us vs. them mentality is under the surface in this game, a version of which was missing in the instant classic, double-overtime thriller in November.

When the Irish recruit players, the independent status is part of the pitch. Notre Dame brags about its national footprint, about ending every season in California, about facing opponents from at least three Power Five conferences every year. It becomes part of the mantra around the football program. So much as there is an ethos to be bought into, the players that do so also channel the value of independence.

“Join a conference? Be careful what you wish for.”

Meanwhile, the Tigers carry the mantle for the ACC. They may not be the most-liked conference member — a proclivity for stealing signs, five conference titles in a row, the overall spectre of dominance — but they are at least a member. If Clemson doesn’t win, Notre Dame will forever have a claim over the ACC. (Maybe not literally forever, but for any foreseeable future.)

BY HOW MUCH?
In Brian Kelly’s 11-year tenure, the Irish have won as double-digit underdogs exactly once in six tries, beating Oklahoma in 2012 as 11.5-point underdogs. Go back a full 20 years, and Notre Dame is 4-19 in such moments (2007 UCLA; 2004 Michigan State; 2002 Florida State). Of course, there is a reason for that. Winning as a 10-plus-point underdog is hard, otherwise the spread would not be so wide.

Kelly is 3-3 against those spreads, and the Irish are 12-11 since the turn of the century.

Such trends are brought up to dash any misplaced trends narratives with Notre Dame a 10.5-point underdog against Clemson with a combined point total over/under of 59.5. A 35-24 result would be similar-scoring compared to November’s 33-33 regulation.

That may seem ambitious for the Irish, given they started their scoring six weeks ago with a 65-yard Kyren Williams touchdown run and needed a stellar defensive touchdown from senior linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah to keep up with the Tigers while Notre Dame’s offense went 59 minutes without finding the end zone.

But replace those two big moments with fewer mistakes in the red zone — avoid a Michael Mayer false start on fourth-and-1 from the two; avoid a Mayer dropped pass inside the five on a third down; avoid Ian Book fumbling the ball into the end zone — and those two touchdowns can be quickly and reasonably replaced. The Irish left 15 points on the field in the red zone.

Neither Notre Dame nor Clemson played perfectly back in November. While freshman quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei threw for more than 400 yards, the Tigers also needed him to, since their defense was compromised without tackle Tyler Davis and linebacker James Skalski.

Lawrence may play better in a clutch moment, perhaps evading back-to-back sacks in overtime, but his raw production is unlikely to match Uiagalelei’s. Davis and Skalski are back on the field, but Skalski’s actual health is still very much in question.

The point is, for every item in Irish favor compared to November, there is one against them. The same is true of Clemson. The spread may be double digits, but the precedent has been set: This will be close.

MATCHUP OF THE GAME: Speaking of Skalski and Davis, their health and effectiveness against Notre Dame senior Josh Lugg at center may determine Book’s success. Lugg has excellent reach and enough starting experience to not be cowed by the moment, but this will be only his second start at center, replacing sophomore Zeke Correll who was replacing junior Jarrett Patterson. If Lugg cannot hold up against Clemson’s No. 1 middle defenders, Book’s life will become magnificently more difficult.

“We have to do a better job in the trenches,” Swinney said Monday. “We have to do a much better job of containing this quarterback. He’s a great player, we have to make plays, we have to do a better job than we did in the first game. We have to fit the run better. We missed some tackles, and then we have to make some of the competitive plays.”

The Irish gaining push at the point of attack would keep the trenches in their favor, allow Book to freelance his way to a few “no-no-no-YES” moments that have become his trademark. Losing that would stymie Notre Dame’s ground game and thus allow the Tigers to focus their safeties on Mayer and fifth-year receiver Javon McKinley, rather than on run support. Irish offensive success can help set its defensive parameters, force Clemson to once again abandon Travis Etienne and its rushing attack to become one-dimensional.

As much a question of Lugg’s comfort as the fulcrum, this may depend on Skalski’s mobility and range. He missed three games in the middle of the season and made only seven tackles in the last two games, in fact barely playing at all at Virginia Tech, all due to a groin injury. Any limits to his aggressiveness now will stand out even more, with his backup Jake Venables out for the year with a broken arm.

BACK TO A PREDICTION: When Kelly revs up his engine like he did Friday — finding poetic strides like “We’re worshipping the ashes of tradition,” and “an absolute shame and a shame” — it usually indicates he has complete faith in his gameplan. That is not always the case. Sometimes the gameplan is not the vital key to a game, when facing downtrodden opponents like Syracuse or Virginia Tech. Sometimes Kelly knows the gameplan has holes, a la lacking speed at Georgia in 2019.

And sometimes he thinks his coordinators have found something.

That is an abstract thought to pivot on, but in a rematch of a double-overtime all-timer, something abstract may well be the difference.

Notre Dame 31, Clemson 30.
(9-1 straight up, 5-5 against the spread, 5-5 over/under)

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INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Swinney sees similarities between 2020 Notre Dame and 2018 Clemson
Clark Lea takes head coach job at Vanderbilt
And In That Corner … Clemson, again, stands between Notre Dame and the ACC title
While ND chases a conference trophy, Kelly turns his ire toward the Playoff committee
On Signing Day, remember Notre Dame’s surge has hinged on three-stars
Notre Dame wins a signing period surprise: Four-star safety Khari Gee
Notre Dame wins a signing period surprise: Consensus four-star running back Audric Estime
Notre Dame gets the letter: Consensus four-star quarterback Tyler Buchner

OUTSIDE READING:
ACC Championship is on in Charlotte despite COVID spike. Health director wonders why.
Trevor Lawrence ready for his shot against Notre Dame in ACC rematch
Former SC high school teammates face off on big stage with Clemson, Notre Dame
If Notre Dame beats Clemson, College Football Playoff committee faces daunting decision
In a tumultuous season, the ACC has risen above the rest
Could Notre Dame jump from independent to ACC long term?
Previewing championship week
Rose Bowl CFP semifinal in danger if ACC, SEC get their wish
— ‘The logic doesn’t make sense’ — Why the Rose Bowl should be moved this season
Surprise? Safety recruit Khari Gee turns down LSU, announces signing with Notre Dame
Photo gallery of Clark Lea at Vanderbilt
Losing money betting on college football this year? You’re not alone
2021 NFL draft rankings

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

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 23 Notre Dame Spring Game
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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.

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

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A lot of people go to college for seven years. For Tommy Rees, it has been 10 years at Notre Dame, so to speak.

Whether or not Rees leaves his alma mater this week, as multiple Thursday reports indicated Rees is the frontrunner to be Alabama’s next offensive coordinator, there is no bad choice in front of him. Either Rees returns as the Irish offensive coordinator for a fourth season, continues his pursuit of winning a national championship at Notre Dame after three postseason trips already in his career, or he learns under the best college football coach in history in a position that has springboarded coaches to greener pastures for about a decade now.

Irish fans may spend most of their falls criticizing Rees’s play calls, but he is clearly someone well-respected in the coaching community. Seen as a future coach when he was a player and then navigating multiple delicate quarterback situations at Notre Dame, this is not the first time Nick Saban has chased Rees. He reportedly did so following the 2019 season, when Rees had not even spent a day as an offensive coordinator.

Instead, Rees took over that gig in South Bend, losing to Alabama in the 2020 College Football Playoff, albeit a more competitive showing than when Rees and the Irish fell to the Tide in the 2012 title game. Miami sought Rees in recent years, and whispers of vague NFL interest have popped up more offseasons than not.

If most of those people who go to college for seven years are called doctors, then Rees has put together a doctorate-level intellect evidenced by who wants to hire him. Alabama publicly sending a branded plane to South Bend to ferry Rees for a visit on Thursday underscored that reputation.

Set aside the forced references to “Tommy Boy” — though the similarities do go past the first name and to a Catholic university in the Midwest — and realize Rees will leave Notre Dame at some point, probably sooner than later.

Maybe he joins Saban this weekend. Alabama needs to navigate a first-year starter at quarterback next year in a conference that quickly seemed to catch up to the Tide last season, with both LSU and Tennessee staking claims as competitors with Georgia already clearly out in front and Mississippi in the mix. Competing with former Irish head coach Brian Kelly every year would make for juicy headlines, but what speaks louder to Rees’s credit is that this is the time Saban wants to snag him, when Alabama’s footing may be less secure than at any point since the ‘00s.

Maybe Rees returns to Notre Dame, teams with Wake Forest graduate transfer quarterback Sam Hartman to ready for three top-10 matchups in 2023, and gets the Irish into the College Football Playoff for a third time in six years with the only constant quite literally being Rees.

Oh, and both scenarios should come with plenty of money.

Rees has no bad choice in front of him. That is a credit to him, even if fans would rather lampoon him than step back and acknowledge the intricacies of playcalling.

If he heads to Alabama, the annual matchups with LSU will become delightful fodder from afar. His Notre Dame legacy will include “Call duo until you can’t speak,” his emphatic play call when he left the coaches’ booth early as the Irish upset Clemson this past November, and “I’m [bleepin’] staying,” Rees’s declaration to the offensive players last December amid a week of tumult.

If he stays in South Bend, the next matchup with anyone in the SEC, most likely a 2023 bowl game, will drip with an on-field chance at validation. That legacy will include spurning college football’s best not once, but twice.

For a quarterback who lost his starting job at Notre Dame not once (2011 preseason), but twice (2012 preseason), some pride has been earned. Saban’s stamp of approval carries all the weight needed in college football to assure someone of their professional standing.

It may have taken a decade, but Rees can now know he belongs with the best, no matter what decision he makes this weekend.

The lull of National Signing Day underscores need to move the early signing period

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The early-morning chaos of today’s National Signing Day did not disappear with the implementation of the December “early” signing period in the 2018 recruiting cycle. It just moved six weeks earlier.

In 2014, waking up at 6:45 a.m. ET to be logged on and publishing at 7 a.m. led to noticing one expected recruit had not yet signed with Notre Dame by 8 a.m. Pointing that out and reminding the world Michigan State was making a late push led to an Irish media relations staffer reaching out to quietly say something to the extent of, “Just letting the young man have his moment at school.”

In 2017, less than two weeks after taking over this gig, waking up at 3 a.m. CT to churn through 2,000 words before signings could begin becoming official eventually led to napping through Brian Kelly’s Signing Day press conference.

Nothing changed 10 months later. That December, the afternoon of Dec. 22, the Friday before Christmas, was spent waiting for receiver Braden Lenzy to officially choose Notre Dame over Oregon. Sitting at your parents’ kitchen table not helping your niece make a gingerbread house because recruiting-obsessed fans harassed a player through two de-commitments is not a strong way to conjure up holiday spirit.

Coaches across the country advocated for the earlier signing period, claiming it would allow high-school seniors to make their collegiate decisions official earlier on in their senior years, particularly when the prospects had already made up their minds on where to play football at the next level. That was all optics, if even that.

These high schoolers now make their decision official just six weeks earlier. In the preps football calendar, those six weeks are meaningless. Both the December signing period and today, the traditional National Signing Day, come well after the high-school seasons have ended.

The truth was, coaches across the country did not want to tend to their solid commitments over Christmas and New Year’s, particularly not amid bowl prep. It was self-serving at best and short-sighted at worst.

First of all, when the December signing period became reality in 2017, one-time transfers were not yet allowed without losing eligibility the following season. Secondly, no one predicted the early signing period would lead to the coaching carousel beginning earlier and earlier in the season. September firings used to be the result of only off-field scandals, not outright expected from half a dozen programs each fall. Athletic directors now want that headstart on hiring a new coach so he can have time before the December signing period commences.

Exhibit A: Notre Dame may have ended up with Marcus Freeman as its head coach after Brian Kelly’s abrupt departure following the 2021 season, but if the primary signing date had not been lingering just a few weeks away, Kelly likely would not have jumped to LSU before the College Football Playoff field was set, and Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick would have taken more time in choosing his next head coach, more than the 48 hours he used last December. After all, Swarbrick took 10 days in hiring Kelly in 2009.

Lastly, with a 12-team Playoff coming in 2025, December will become only more hectic.

Those head coaches who wanted a little less stress over the holidays will then have to deal with, in chronological order:

— Keeping their own jobs.
— Securing their recruiting classes in the days immediately preceding Christmas.
— Preparing their teams for bowl games.
— Preparing their teams for up to four games if in the Playoff.
— Re-recruiting any players considering entering the transfer portal before the winter window closes.
— Winning a bowl game.
— Retaining their coaching staffs.
— Oh, and celebrate the holidays with their families, as was their want when they hollered for the early signing period.

Most of those tasks are immutable and inherent to the sport.

But one can move. It already has once.

The logic is too clear. Nothing was gained in moving up the primary signing date by six weeks. And sanity was lost.

This is, of course, a sport that prefers to ignore logic, but usually that is charming. A mustard bottle on the field is quirky; lacking a worthwhile voice of authority is stubbornly stupid.

So the early signing period may not move as soon as it should (now), but it will move. There are no anti-trust worries tied to it, fortunately.

And aside from the logic, cramming more content into December costs the media, too. Spreading out that context through the vacuum of mid-January to mid-March will be much appreciated.