There are two ways to look at a team that “ain’t played nobody.” One, they really aren’t that good and weren’t challenged. Two, we have no idea what the ceiling is on this team; it could be very good. Neither Clemson nor Notre Dame played a hard schedule. FEI ranks Clemson’s schedule 101 and Notre Dame’s 85 but both teams played well against their schedule. Clemson ranks 2nd per most systems and Notre Dame ranges between 4 and 7. Clemson had two one score games while Notre Dame had 5, but only 2 after switching to Ian Book for the final 9 games. We have a good idea of how good Notre Dame is, but I’m not sure we do of Clemson.
How Notre Dame Wins
We see through orange-tinted glasses, so let’s take the opposite approach and build a case as to why Clemson is vulnerable. Clemson faced three top 30 offenses, Texas A&M, NC State, and South Carolina, but got lit up in the passing game by two of them. The defensive line was not able to get pressure against A&M or South Carolina, allowing Mond and Bentley to take advantage of coverage issues in the secondary. Notre Dame has a good offensive line that protects the quarterback, ranking 33 in sack rate (Book’s sack rate is 4.1%).
Notre Dame has three good wide receivers. Miles Boykin and Chase Claypool are 6’4” that are reliable (9.2 and 8.9 yards/target, respectively). Chris Finke plays in the slot at 5’10, 180 lbs. and has reliable hands (70% catch rate, 8.2 yards per target). Expect Finke and their TE Alize Mack to test the seam and middle of the field. Mack has good hands and is targeted fourth most on the team. For this game, Notre Dame will get RB Dexter Williams involved as well (5th most targeted) to test our LB’s and S’s discipline. Williams only has 13 catches on the year and 5.5 yards/target, but you know they will try to sneak him on a route.
Ian Book is a good passer with a 70.4% completion rate for 8.2 yards/attempt. He’s very efficient, but can also throw downfield. I would be shocked if we haven’t fixed the seam route that South Carolina got us with, but they will challenge our safeties with downfield middle of the field routes. Book needs to be on, hitting open receivers and feeling blitzes, for them to win the game.
Notre Dame is not going to run the ball on Clemson. Pitt was the most successful all season at 4.0 yards/rush, but they lost 42-10 and threw for 0.5 yards/attempt (25% completion rate). There is a good chance Notre Dame rushes for less than 3.0 yards/carry. They rank 95 in rushing efficiency while Clemson’s defense ranks 3. They aren’t going to win the game by running the ball down our throats. It’s going to fall on Ian Book’s shoulders.
That’s the main reason Clemson is a 13-point favorite. We know going into the game that Notre Dame will most likely be one dimensional and that’s not a recipe to win consistently. South Carolina got 264 yards from one play, the slot post. If Venables hasn’t improved the coverage issues on the back end, we’re in trouble. At the very least, though, he can change scheme: keeping both DE’s on the line instead of dropping one into coverage and mixing up the secondary coverage instead of going man-to-man.
When looking back on the A&M game, keep in mind we were up 21-6 with four minutes left in the third quarter. At that point Kellen Mond started throwing the ball up for 206 yards and 2 TD’s in the fourth quarter and our secondary didn’t make plays on the ball. We had a lot of missed opportunities to seal the game. There were 7 egregious holds with no calls to Clemson’s zero, but the part we should have controlled was cohesiveness in the secondary. Fast forward to the South Carolina game and we had the same issue. In every other game the opposing offense was unable to consistently pass the ball.
For Clemson to win a National Championship, the secondary needs to take a step forward as a unit. We have very good CB’s and an outstanding athlete at SAM. We don’t need elite players back there; we need consistency. If we get that, we have a very good chance of beating Notre Dame and going toe-to-toe with Alabama.