The long-awaited rematch of the year will happen this afternoon!
No. 2 Notre Dame and No. 3 Clemson square off Saturday in the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship Game rife with hype and expectations.
When the two teams played on Nov. 7 in South Bend, Ind., the Fighting Irish worked double overtime before claiming a 47-40 victory. This time there is considerably more at stake — namely, a guaranteed spot into the College Football Playoff for the winner.
There’s a chance that Notre Dame (10-0, 9-0 ACC) and Clemson (9-1, 8-1) could make the playoff regardless of the outcome in Charlotte, N.C., at Bank of America Stadium, but neither wants to take that chance.
“We’ve got our hands full focusing on this ACC Championship,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “The Playoffs take care of themselves. We can’t control that. Do our players understand that if they win, they’re going to be in the Playoffs? Sure, they get that. But we’re wired to think we’re going to win the football game.”
Clemson is bidding for not only its sixth consecutive ACC title, but its sixth straight trip to the CFP as well. The Tigers have claimed two national titles in that span.
Clemson’s hopes in the rematch are buoyed by the return of several key players, including quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who missed the first Notre Dame game while continuing his recovery protocol from COVID-19.
Freshman D.J. Uiagalelei performed admirably in Lawrence’s stead, passing for 439 yards and two touchdowns, but Lawrence’s absence was noticeable at times.
“There are a lot of great players out there, but none like this guy,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said of Lawrence. “He’s the total package. The guy’s a winner.”
In Lawrence and Notre Dame’s Ian Book, fans will be treated to the winningest quarterbacks in the histories of their storied programs. Lawrence is 33-1 in his career as a starter at Clemson while Book is 30-3 at Notre Dame.
“This kid is a great player,” Swinney said of Book. “He’s got a bit of magic to him, can do it all. He’s the heart and soul — he makes them go. He’s a problem. We didn’t do a very good job against him. For us to win the game, we’ve got to affect him and not let him get comfortable. He’s tough, he’s as good a runner as you’re going to see.”
Ah, the running game. The ability to run the ball effectively looms large and may hold the key for both teams in the rematch.
Notre Dame throttled Clemson on Nov. 7, holding the Tigers to a season-low 34 yards rushing and standout running Travis Etienne to a career-low 28 yards.
“Bottom line, we’ve got to play better up front,” Swinney said.
Etienne, the ACC’s all-time career rushing leader, presents multiple challenges as he’s already caught 41 passes for 512 yards this season.
“You have to know where he is,” Kelly said. “It’s a team defensive effort and we’re going to have to have a similar one. He’s an explosive player that we have such great respect for. When you put your game plan together, the first thing you think of is how you’re going to slow him down.”
Meanwhile, Notre Dame found considerable success with the run against Clemson the first time around, amassing 208 yards, including 140 yards and three touchdowns from Kyren Williams.
Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables is hopeful that top linebacker James Skalski, who missed the first game against the Fighting Irish, will be back in the lineup as well as top defensive lineman Tyler Davis.
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