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No. 1 Clemson at No. 4 Notre Dame: Who, what, when, where, why and by how much?

Brian Kelly explains why he believes Notre Dame is built differently to match up against Clemson, but says it's not a "destination" for the Fighting Irish as much as a way to control their own destiny in the ACC.

WHO? No. 4 Notre Dame (6-0, 5-0 ACC) vs. No. 1 Clemson (7-0, 6-0).The veteran quarterback who has never lost at home against a freshman making his first career road start. The senior linebacker rocketing up draft boards against the superstar heretofore-undefendable running back who spurned the draft for one more go-round. Two of the best defensive coordinators in the country and that may be underselling it.

A 22-game home winning streak against a 36-game regular-season winning streak.

WHAT? Quite possibly, maybe even likely, an ACC championship game preview, but more to the point, an evening that will have a direct impact on the College Football Playoff picture. There is no need to frame this contest in historical terms, its present-day notoriety is omnipresent enough.

That said, historical terms are fun preview fodder, and the Irish are 3-5 all-time against No. 1-ranked foes at home, the most recent occurrence being the infamous Bush Push loss in 2005. Those games have had a habit of being worth the hype, the last four occasions decided by a combined 14 points:

1988 — No. 4 Notre Dame 31, No. 1 Miami 30.1993 — No. 2 Notre Dame 31, No. 1 Florida State 24.2000 — No. 1 Nebraska 27, No. 23 Notre Dame 24 (overtime).2005 — No. 1 USC 34, No. 9 Notre Dame 31.

The Irish have faced only one top-10 team at home during Brian Kelly’s 11-year tenure, a 38-17 shellacking of No. 7 Stanford in 2018. Remember this distinction.

WHEN? This matchup was always scheduled for Nov. 7, but when the ACC revamped schedules in August due to the coronavirus pandemic, there was some Notre Dame consternation the conference would move the Clemson date earlier into the season, into better weather, theoretically a perk for the South Carolinians. The Irish would understandably want every advantage they can get against Dabo Swinney’s dynasty.

But the ACC left this tilt for Nov. 7, which in the unpredictable year of 2020, naturally includes 62 degrees and clear skies in South Bend for a scheduled 7:35 ET kickoff.

So much for home-field advantage.

NBC will air a two-part Countdown to Kickoff, beginning at 5:30 ET for 30 minutes and then resuming at 7 ET, hosted by Jac Collinsworth.

WHERE? Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend, Ind., which will also host ESPN’s College GameDay beginning at 9 a.m. Of course, the first remote broadcast of the iconic show was for that 1993 “Game of the Century” against Florida State, though back then, ESPN broadcast from within the Joyce Center.

NBC will have the broadcast, while the game will stream online and via the NBC Sports app. International viewers should be able to gain access via this link.

WHY? Because to be the best, you have to beat the best; the Irish insist they intend to be the best, and Clemson is unquestionably the best these days, even without star quarterback Trevor Lawrence. The Tigers have earned that designation with five consecutive trips to the College Football Playoff, four of those years ending in the national championship game and two of them as the winners.

“You can’t hide it,” senior linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah said Monday. “It is a big game. A lot of people want to say it’s just another game, but you don’t want to hide the elephant in the room. It is something that can increase our value, especially to where we want to go.

“The national championship is always at the forefront of our minds. With having that at the forefront of our minds, you also have to have the team that’s in the way in front of your mind.”

When Notre Dame fell, 30-3, to Clemson in the 2018 Playoff semifinal, the game was tied at three after a quarter. Then, Irish junior cornerback Julian Love suffered an injury, missed the second quarter, and the Tigers’ top-tier receivers rattled off three touchdowns, repeatedly targeting Love’s replacement, Donte Vaughn, playing with only one good shoulder. Admittedly, a healthy Vaughn would have struggled to defend Justyn Ross, but the dropoff from Love to a banged-up Vaughn underscored Notre Dame’s greatest flaw back then.

It not only did not have depth, it barely had enough Playoff-caliber starters.

“Congratulations to Clemson, they played well,” Kelly said afterward. “They were opportunistic. They made the plays necessary to win in a game of this fashion. Opportunistic in that we lost one of our very fine defensive backs in Julian Love to a head injury.

“You can’t give up four big plays on defense. We did not do that all year. Uncharacteristic of our defense.”

Love’s injury was not the only reason the Irish lost to the Tigers, but it quickly and dramatically widened the gap.

Nowadays, Notre Dame has a few players capable of hanging with Clemson. It may still lack top-tier depth, but that is true of pretty much every team in the country, as may be evidenced by the Tigers’ defensive middle tonight, missing linebackers James Skalski and Mike Jones, and defensive tackle Tyler Davis.

Both Owusu-Koramoah and Irish sophomore safety Kyle Hamilton would start on any team in the country, including Clemson’s. They are also the two Notre Dame defenders possibly capable of hanging with Tigers running back Travis Etienne. He is averaging just 86.57 rushing yards per game this season, the result of a suspect offensive line that will have its hands full with the Irish defensive line’s depth. But Etienne complements those rushing struggles with 62 receiving yards per game on 15 yards per catch.

Both as a safety valve for freshman quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei and as a deep threat, Etienne has the ability to propel Clemson’s offense all on his own.

Unless Owusu-Koramoah and Hamilton contain him.

Despite Lawrence’s absence and Uiagalelei’s second-career start, the Tigers remain 5.5-point favorites, per PointsBet. Frankly, the quarterback substitution did not change the spread much, if at all, most analytical projections two weeks ago setting it at 6 or 6.5, where the line spent most of the week before Swinney ruled out his defensive leaders.

The combined point-total over/under of 50.5 suggests a final tally of 28-23.

Now let’s rattle off some facts …— Under Brian Kelly, Notre Dame has covered the spread in six of its eight regular-season games against top-10 teams. Only one of those came at home, the aforementioned Stanford route.— In 2.5 seasons with Clark Lea as defensive coordinator, the Irish have held their opponent below its expected point total in 23 of 32 games, including 10 of their last 12, a stretch that would include every game this season if Florida State had not been gifted two short fields.— In the same timespan, Clemson has been held to 28 or fewer points six times.— The Tigers have given up more than 28 points only twice in that stretch: Against the most-prolific offense in college football history in the 2019 national championship game, and in a rivalry game against South Carolina in 2018 in which Deebo Samuel had three touchdowns and more than 200 receiving yards.— Notre Dame does not have an offense comparable to 2019 LSU or a receiver comparable to Samuel. Yes, this is a fact.

Thus, it is reasonable to expect Clemson to score fewer than 28 points. Given Kelly’s penchant for exceeding expectations in these games, it is just as reasonable to expect Notre Dame to be at least within five points of the Tigers. But given how rarely Clemson gives up more than 28, the Irish are not about to broach that barrier.

To pull off the upset, Notre Dame will need to contain Etienne and Uiagalelei to such an extent they do not even reach 24 or 27 points. That demand begins to be rather steep.

There is every temptation to predict an Irish upset. At home, against a freshman quarterback, etc. But doing so would go back on a preseason prediction: “Arguably the biggest college football game of the year, that top-10 matchup will end with a score more similar to the Bush Push than the 2018 Playoff semifinal, but both were Notre Dame losses and this will be, too, snapping a home winning streak at 22 games, the second-longest in program history.”

Clemson 24, Notre Dame 20.
(6-0 straight up, 3-3 against the spread, 3-3 over/under)

INSIDE THE IRISH READING:On voting, mental health and Notre Dame’s tight ends’ importance against ClemsonBrian Kelly returns to long view, Clemson ‘not the end-all’ for Notre DameNotre Dame ground attack rushes through third downs and opponentsAnd In That Corner … Clemson’s wounded defense looms for Notre DameThings To Learn: Notre Dame’s time ‘on the brink’ will end, win or lose, against ClemsonNotre Dame’s Opponents: North Carolina loss clears Irish, Clemson’s path to ACC title game30 Years of Notre Dame on NBC: The Bush Push

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