The 2018 Goodyear Cotton Bowl has the honor of hosting the College Football Playoff semifinal game between the no. 2 Clemson Tigers and no. 3 Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Kickoff is set for 4:00 EST on Saturday, December 29, at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The game will be televised on ESPN.
The Tigers are currently listed as 11-point favorites over the Irish. The over/under for the game is set at 55 points. Click here to see a full list of this year’s bowl game betting odds and game previews.
For the second time during Brian Kelly’s tenure at Notre Dame, the Fighting Irish finished the regular season 12-0. Most have noted how Notre Dame’s schedule was not quite as difficult as it’s been in past years. That’s mostly an anomaly due to teams like Stanford, Virginia Tech, Navy, Florida State, and USC having down seasons. In the end, the Fighting Irish had eight games against teams in bowl games, which is respectable. However, Michigan, Northwestern, and Syracuse are the only teams Notre Dame beat that finished the regular season in the top-25. Nevertheless, the CFP Committee deemed the Irish worthy of a playoff spot after going undefeated.
Of course, Clemson also enters the national semi-final undefeated. This is the fourth straight season that the Tigers are in the playoff and the second time they enter a perfect 13-0. While the ACC usually isn’t considered the best conference in college football, 10 of the 13 teams Clemson beat this year are playing in a bowl game. The Tigers also dominated a majority of the teams on their schedule. Wins over Texas A&M and Syracuse were the only games decided by less than 20 points. Once again, Dabo Swinney’s team cruised through the regular season, and now the Tigers will go after their second national championship in the last three years.
Since 1979, these two teams have met just one time. Clemson won that game 24-22 on their home field in 2015. The Tigers barely survived a Notre Dame comeback after the Irish missed a 2-point conversion in the final minute. That was the only time that Kelly and Swinney have previously matched wits.
I know that Notre Dame didn’t play the toughest schedule, but that doesn’t mean they should be overlooked in this game. Admittedly, the Irish don’t quite as much high-end talent as Clemson, but I’m surprised to see a double-digit spread for this game. Notre Dame has more than enough talent at the key positions to make this a competitive game and give themselves a chance to win. Keep in mind that Notre Dame will be the best team Clemson has played this year, so I’ll take the Irish and the points in this game.
Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence has received an awful lot of publicity this season. But I think Notre Dame’s Ian Book can be just as impactful in this game. Book exploded onto the scene when he took over as the starter in late September. He ended up completing 70% of his passes on the season and throwing for no less than 264 yards in all eight games he started. Book also has several viable receiving targets rather than relying solely on one or two receivers, which could make things difficult on the Clemson secondary.
If there’s a weakness in Clemson’s defense, it’s definitely in the secondary. Late in the season, South Carolina’s Jake Bentley threw for over 500 yards and five touchdowns against the Tigers. Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond threw for over 400 yards against them early in the year, so that group struggled all season whenever they were challenged. Admittedly, the future NFL stars that comprise Clemson’s defensive line will have a chance to put pressure on Book and disrupt his rhythm. But for a quarterback with limited experience before this season, Book has a fair amount of poise in the pocket, so I think he’ll be able to handle a little pressure.
The Notre Dame rushing attack also deserves a little credit. Dexter Williams didn’t play the first four games of the season but still ended up with over 900 yards rushing on the season, gaining 6.6 yards per carry. Pittsburgh and Northwestern were the only teams that were able to keep him bottled up this year. Even if he doesn’t give the Irish 100 yards rushing, Williams should present enough of a challenge for the Tigers to keep Clemson’s pass rushers from pinning their ears back and going after Book.
On the other side of the ball, I don’t think the Notre Dame defense is getting the credit they deserve. They held eight of their 12 opponents under 20 points, and that includes some of the best offensive teams they faced like Michigan, Stanford, and Syracuse. They rose to the occasion when facing a difficult opponent or being tasked with defending a lead, and I think they’ll be fine against Clemson.
Admittedly, no team Notre Dame has played this year can adequately prepare them for facing the Tigers. Lawrence is the real deal despite a lack of experience, the Tigers have no less than four quality receivers, and running back Travis Etienne is an 80-yard touchdown run waiting to happen. However, no defense Clemson has faced this year has as much talent or depth across the board as the Fighting Irish.
All things considered, I honestly believe this will be a one-score game heading into the 4th quarter. Clemson should be favored, but I don’t think they’re head and shoulders better than Notre Dame. The Irish have a good chance to match Clemson’s physicality, as well as their talent at the quarterback position. With the spread at 11 points, I like my chances with Notre Dame as the underdog.