In a matchup of undefeated teams, no less.
When No. 2 Clemson (13-0) and No. 3 Notre Dame (12-0) battle Saturday night at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, it will mark the Tigers’ first trip to the Cotton Bowl since 1940; the Fighting Irish are returning to college football’s fourth-oldest bowl for the first time since 1994.
“I’ve been in college football for a long time, and I’ve never had the opportunity to experience the Cotton Bowl,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “But I know a lot of people who have said what a great experience it is.”
That experience will be even better if the Tigers can figure out a way to accomplish what no other team has been able to this season — namely, prevail against Notre Dame in a close game. The Fighting Irish won six games by 10 points or less this season.
“They take care of the ball, play within their schemes,” Swinney said. “You have to beat them, and to this point nobody’s been able to do that.”
Clemson, on the other hand, won its 13 games by an average margin of nearly 32 points and is making its fourth consecutive appearance in the College Football Playoff. The Tigers have gone 3-2 in the playoff, including a victory against Alabama in the 2016 title game. But the Crimson Tide turned the tables on Clemson last year, throttling the Tigers in a 24-6 win in the Sugar Bowl before going on to win the national championship.
Notre Dame is making its first appearance in the College Football Playoff.
“The most impressive thing about Notre Dame to me is they don’t beat themselves,” Swinney said. “You can watch from game one all the way through and count on three fingers how many times they’ve got guys running wide open. They’re where they’re supposed to be. They’re not going to give you a whole lot.”
Clemson All-America defensive end Clelin Ferrell says the Tigers’ star-studded defense, which ranks among the Top 5 nationally in several defensive categories, including yards allowed per play, tackles for loss and sacks, will face its top challenge to date.
“They have no weaknesses,” Ferrell said. “Every offense that we’ve played, there’s been something that we could kind of exploit, but Notre Dame, they’re good at all levels.
“They’re good everywhere. We can’t shrink the playbook against them. We’ve got to be ready for everything and that makes it hard on us.
“But I feel like we’ve got the right group of guys. We knew this was how it was going to be in the College Football Playoff. It’s going to be a tough task, but we’re going to be ready for it.”
Clemson’s defense could be short-handed. Standout tackle Dexter Lawrence was among three players suspended earlier this week after testing positive for “a sliver,” Swinney said, of banned substance osterine. A second test potentially could clear Lawrence as well as tight end Braden Galloway and offensive lineman Zach Giella.
Notre Dame may need more help than one suspended starter for Clemson. The Tigers boast one of the top offenses in the nation as well, ranking fifth in scoring offense at 45.4 points per game.
A switch to freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence in the season’s fifth game proved to be the right move and the rookie responded with more than 2,600 yards passing, 24 touchdowns and only four interceptions.
The 6-foot-6 Lawrence is flanked by one of the nation’s top running backs in sophomore Travis Etienne, who averages 8.3 yards per carry, and a deep and talented receiving corps.
“I think the running back, Etienne, I think he’s as good a running back as we’ve seen since Georgia of last year, that kind of talent,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “The quarterback is really good. He’s got great arm talent. He’s tall and can see the field. I think the receiving corps is on par with a USC receiving corps. That’s a pretty dynamic offensive set.”
Notre Dame’s in-season switch to quarterback Ian Book also paid off. Book has guided the Irish to perfection while throwing for 22 touchdowns and only six interceptions. Running back Dexter Williams is on the cusp of 1,000 yards despite playing in only eight games.