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No. 2 Notre Dame vs. No. 3 Clemson: Who, what, when, where, why and by how much?

Notre Dame Clemson

No. 1 Clemson vs. No 4. Notre Dame inside Notre Dame Stadium.

Notre Dame Athletics

WHO? No. 2 Notre Dame (10-0, 9-0 ACC) vs. No. 3 Clemson (9-1, 8-1).

WHAT? The Atlantic Coast Conference championship game. That’s right, the Irish are chasing conference hardware. This is what 2020 has driven us to.

More than that, this may be a play-in game for whatever will inevitably replace the Rose Bowl. Presuming No. 1 Alabama dispatches No. 7 Florida once and for all — and unless the sun rises in the west and sets in the east, consider it assured — then the ACC champion will end up No. 2 in the final Playoff rankings and not be heading to the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans.

Common sense suggests the winner will not head to Pasadena, either. Irish head coach Brian Kelly drew a line in the sand Friday: He has no intentions of quietly traveling to the West Coast (to face a team from no further west than Texas) to play in an empty stadium forbidding even the parents of his players from attending. Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney agreed with Kelly in every way but figurative volume.

“It would be really sad at this point to be in a Playoff game and these players’ families couldn’t be there,” Swinney said. “That would be a poor decision, and again, a year where everybody’s had to have flexibility and make adjustments along the way, that would be a mistake.”

The momentum of this reality had been building for a couple weeks before Kelly gave it a public voice Friday. Frankly, the momentum had been building for nine months and the pandemic’s surge in recent weeks sealed it, yet the College Football Playoff committee and its executive management opted to cross their fingers and hope things would resolve themselves. The federal government tried that approach for nine months; it clearly does not work.

So Kelly spoke up, and while he may not have the cache of Swinney or Alabama head coach Nick Saban, he has plenty thanks to the interlocking ND on his quarter-zip, and the Playoff committee will have little choice but to scramble to a solution before announcing the semifinal matchups on Sunday.

OKAY, BACK TO THE GAME: Well, hold on. Rose Bowl lunacy aside, this is a play-in game to avoid Alabama in the semifinal. If Notre Dame loses, it is presumably headed to the No. 4 seed (thus avoiding an immediate rematch of this rematch) and a date in New Orleans. While if Clemson loses, the Tigers may be out of the Playoff for the first time in six years and star quarterback Trevor Lawrence’s college career could be over. Their best-case scenario could be a controversial No. 4 seed and a shot at ‘Bama.

WHEN? 4 ET on ABC. In something of a 2020 oddity, every Irish game away from South Bend has been a late afternoon kickoff on the alphabet. If pondering a continuation of that theme, then know the Rose Bowl kicks off at 5 ET, while the Sugar Bowl will follow it at 8:45 ET. Admittedly, that order is to cater to Pasadena’s sunset, and that may no longer be a concern once the semifinal is moved to Indianapolis or Dallas or Phoenix, but the order of kickoff would likely remain the same.

WHERE? Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, N.C., where Notre Dame was scheduled to play Wake Forest this season before all plans were scrapped by the obvious. The stadium is allowed to hold 7 percent its capacity, 5,240 fans, just as it has for Carolina Panthers games to date.

That worries local health authorities, though, as the key difference between Panthers games and this conference title game is the vast majority, if not all, of those 5,240 Panthers fans come from the surrounding area.

“Would I prefer [the ACC title game] not be held? Yes, I would prefer not, because there are fans coming in from other parts of the country that are not part of our community, and I think right now is not the best time for that to happen,” said Gibbie Harris, the Mecklenburg County Public Health Director, to the Charlotte News & Observer. “... I don’t know that we’ve seen a lot of people traveling in for those (Panthers) games. So that’s what concerns me more about these two games, is the fact that it’s not local people coming in to see these games.

“We’re looking at folks from other states.”

Harris’ point is valid, and it is partly why Kelly and Swinney did not advocate for widespread fan attendance in the Rose Bowl or its replacement. They argued for the families of their players, families they will not see at Christmas as they focus on Playoff preparations. It may not be the ideal situation, but it is an understandable ask.

WHY? Why a rematch? Why play this game if both Clemson and Notre Dame could slide into the Playoff without it? When you have the chance to beat the best college quarterback of the decade and the current dynasty, there is no thought of skipping that opportunity.

“If we could play Friday, yeah, the guys would want to play Friday,” Kelly said. “... You get to that point where you’re like, can we get this on now? We know Clemson, they know us.”

On top of that, an us vs. them mentality is under the surface in this game, a version of which was missing in the instant classic, double-overtime thriller in November.

When the Irish recruit players, the independent status is part of the pitch. Notre Dame brags about its national footprint, about ending every season in California, about facing opponents from at least three Power Five conferences every year. It becomes part of the mantra around the football program. So much as there is an ethos to be bought into, the players that do so also channel the value of independence.

“Join a conference? Be careful what you wish for.”

Meanwhile, the Tigers carry the mantle for the ACC. They may not be the most-liked conference member — a proclivity for stealing signs, five conference titles in a row, the overall spectre of dominance — but they are at least a member. If Clemson doesn’t win, Notre Dame will forever have a claim over the ACC. (Maybe not literally forever, but for any foreseeable future.)

In Brian Kelly’s 11-year tenure, the Irish have won as double-digit underdogs exactly once in six tries, beating Oklahoma in 2012 as 11.5-point underdogs. Go back a full 20 years, and Notre Dame is 4-19 in such moments (2007 UCLA; 2004 Michigan State; 2002 Florida State). Of course, there is a reason for that. Winning as a 10-plus-point underdog is hard, otherwise the spread would not be so wide.

Kelly is 3-3 against those spreads, and the Irish are 12-11 since the turn of the century.

Such trends are brought up to dash any misplaced trends narratives with Notre Dame a 10.5-point underdog against Clemson with a combined point total over/under of 59.5. A 35-24 result would be similar-scoring compared to November’s 33-33 regulation.

That may seem ambitious for the Irish, given they started their scoring six weeks ago with a 65-yard Kyren Williams touchdown run and needed a stellar defensive touchdown from senior linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah to keep up with the Tigers while Notre Dame’s offense went 59 minutes without finding the end zone.

But replace those two big moments with fewer mistakes in the red zone — avoid a Michael Mayer false start on fourth-and-1 from the two; avoid a Mayer dropped pass inside the five on a third down; avoid Ian Book fumbling the ball into the end zone — and those two touchdowns can be quickly and reasonably replaced. The Irish left 15 points on the field in the red zone.

Neither Notre Dame nor Clemson played perfectly back in November. While freshman quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei threw for more than 400 yards, the Tigers also needed him to, since their defense was compromised without tackle Tyler Davis and linebacker James Skalski.

Lawrence may play better in a clutch moment, perhaps evading back-to-back sacks in overtime, but his raw production is unlikely to match Uiagalelei’s. Davis and Skalski are back on the field, but Skalski’s actual health is still very much in question.

The point is, for every item in Irish favor compared to November, there is one against them. The same is true of Clemson. The spread may be double digits, but the precedent has been set: This will be close.

MATCHUP OF THE GAME: Speaking of Skalski and Davis, their health and effectiveness against Notre Dame senior Josh Lugg at center may determine Book’s success. Lugg has excellent reach and enough starting experience to not be cowed by the moment, but this will be only his second start at center, replacing sophomore Zeke Correll who was replacing junior Jarrett Patterson. If Lugg cannot hold up against Clemson’s No. 1 middle defenders, Book’s life will become magnificently more difficult.

“We have to do a better job in the trenches,” Swinney said Monday. “We have to do a much better job of containing this quarterback. He’s a great player, we have to make plays, we have to do a better job than we did in the first game. We have to fit the run better. We missed some tackles, and then we have to make some of the competitive plays.”

The Irish gaining push at the point of attack would keep the trenches in their favor, allow Book to freelance his way to a few “no-no-no-YES” moments that have become his trademark. Losing that would stymie Notre Dame’s ground game and thus allow the Tigers to focus their safeties on Mayer and fifth-year receiver Javon McKinley, rather than on run support. Irish offensive success can help set its defensive parameters, force Clemson to once again abandon Travis Etienne and its rushing attack to become one-dimensional.

As much a question of Lugg’s comfort as the fulcrum, this may depend on Skalski’s mobility and range. He missed three games in the middle of the season and made only seven tackles in the last two games, in fact barely playing at all at Virginia Tech, all due to a groin injury. Any limits to his aggressiveness now will stand out even more, with his backup Jake Venables out for the year with a broken arm.

BACK TO A PREDICTION: When Kelly revs up his engine like he did Friday — finding poetic strides like “We’re worshipping the ashes of tradition,” and “an absolute shame and a shame” — it usually indicates he has complete faith in his gameplan. That is not always the case. Sometimes the gameplan is not the vital key to a game, when facing downtrodden opponents like Syracuse or Virginia Tech. Sometimes Kelly knows the gameplan has holes, a la lacking speed at Georgia in 2019.

And sometimes he thinks his coordinators have found something.

That is an abstract thought to pivot on, but in a rematch of a double-overtime all-timer, something abstract may well be the difference.

Notre Dame 31, Clemson 30.
(9-1 straight up, 5-5 against the spread, 5-5 over/under)

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INSIDE THE IRISH READING:Swinney sees similarities between 2020 Notre Dame and 2018 ClemsonClark Lea takes head coach job at VanderbiltAnd In That Corner … Clemson, again, stands between Notre Dame and the ACC titleWhile ND chases a conference trophy, Kelly turns his ire toward the Playoff committeeOn Signing Day, remember Notre Dame’s surge has hinged on three-starsNotre Dame wins a signing period surprise: Four-star safety Khari GeeNotre Dame wins a signing period surprise: Consensus four-star running back Audric EstimeNotre Dame gets the letter: Consensus four-star quarterback Tyler Buchner

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