A bit of history will go down Saturday afternoon when No. 2 Clemson and No. 3 Notre Dame meet in the 2018 Cotton Bowl to open the College Football Playoff. It will be the first time in CFP history that two undefeated teams square off in either a semifinal or the CFP National Championship itself, as Clemson (13-0) and Notre Dame (12-0) have yet to lose this season despite being tested at times.
Clemson's last loss came to Alabama in last year's Sugar Bowl semifinal, while Notre Dame is currently riding a 13-game winning streak with its last loss coming to Stanford in its 2017 regular-season finale against Stanford.
Both teams have taken somewhat similar paths to this showdown by making quarterback changes earlier in the season. Clemson moved from Kelly Bryant to Trevor Lawrence and seemingly moving up another level. Notre Dame swapped Brandon Wimbush for Ian Book and saw its offense take a significant step forward. These are two teams with explosive offenses combined with stout defenses that make them tough to beat, and that's why they'll both be playing for a shot at the 2018 national title.
Cotton Bowl breakdown
The similarities are apparent here, which tells me that this game could come down to nothing more than which team makes fewer mistakes. That's usually the case when you have teams with talented, yet somewhat inexperienced quarterbacks. Book is a junior, but after seeing some spot duty in 2017 as a sophomore, he didn't become the full-time starter until late September. Lawrence is a freshman who was highly-touted out of high school but didn't become the starter until October. Neither have played in a game of this magnitude yet, and both will be leading their offenses against one of the best defenses in the country.
Speaking of those defenses, they're both brilliant. Clemson's defensive line is one of the best in the country and is stuffed to the gills with future NFL players. Notre Dame's defense doesn't have quite the same surplus of star power, but as a unit it can match up with just about anybody in the country. Clemson's defense has been more well-rounded, however, so you have to give them the edge in this department. Both units are great at limiting explosive plays, and they'll need to continue doing that in this game to give their teams the best chance of moving on to the title game.2 graphs general intro
Clemson will win if ... it can find running room for Travis Etienne. While Lawrence has done a fantastic job for a freshman quarterback, throwing 24 touchdowns to only four interceptions, he's still a freshman who will be playing in the biggest game of his life. It would be a tremendous help for the Tigers if they're able to lighten his load as much as possible, and they're prepared to do that behind a strong offensive line and one of the best backs in the country. Etienne and company will be going against an excellent Notre Dame defense, however, so finding space won't be easy.
On the other side of the ball, Clemson's front seven must find a way to get pressure on Book consistently. While Clemson's defense overall is fantastic, its secondary has shown flaws at time during the season, and a good pass rush will help cover them. The good news for Clemson is it has one of the best pass-rushes in the entire country, as its sack rate of 10.46 percent ranks second in the nation.
Notre Dame will win if ... it can slow down Clemson's offense. The Irish will be facing one of the toughest defenses in the country in the Tigers, and even with Book, Dexter Williams and big-bodied receivers like Miles Boykin, Chase Claypool, Alize Mack, and Cole Kmet, Notre Dame is going to have trouble putting a lot of points on the board against this team. So it is crucial that its defense does everything in its power to keep the Irish in the game. They must find a way to limit Etienne, one of the most explosive backs in the country. And while Notre Dame's pass defense has been terrific overall, the pass rush has lacked a bit, as their sack rate of 6.53 percent ranks only 57th nationally. They need to put pressure on Lawrence and make him uncomfortable with the hopes he'll put the ball up in dangerous spots which will lead to turnovers. If Notre Dame doesn't win the turnover battle in this game, the odds of it winning are marginal at best.
Game prediction, picks
It feels like everybody is writing off Notre Dame in this game, and I understand why. While both teams are similar, it feels like Clemson's just a little better at nearly every spot. When you add that all up, the Tigers should be favored, but I don't think they should be favored by this much. The Notre Dame defense will do enough to keep the Irish in this game and cover this spread, even if I believe Clemson's more likely to win. Pick: Notre Dame (+12)
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