For the sixth straight season, the winner of this Saturday’s ACC title game will be headed to the College Football Playoff. The difference in 2020 is that this will be true regardless of which team emerges victorious. The Clemson Tigers have dominated the conference over the past five years. Notre Dame is playing in its first-ever conference championship, having joined the ACC officially during this unprecedented year. The ACC title game will be a rematch of these teams’ overtime thriller from earlier in the season. The Irish won the first battle in South Bend 47-40 in double overtime.
ACC Title Game Preview
This weekend’s contest will be the fourth ever rematch between top five teams in college football history. Each of the other three such games was for the national title. This match-up doesn’t have quite the same stakes, but the winner is certain to have a shot to win the biggest prize down the road. Clemson will have their star quarterback Trevor Lawrence back for this meeting. He missed the regular-season contest after testing positive for Covid-19. The Irish and the Tigers have both been in the top four of the College Football Playoff rankings each week they have been released in 2020.
Run It Back
Notre Dame got off to a fast start when these two teams met in early November. Kyren Williams broke a 65-yard run to score on the first play of the game. He finished with 140 yards on the ground and added two more touchdowns to his big play to open proceedings. The Irish will need him to have another big game to keep the Tiger defense honest. Clemson feeds off of pressure, so a strong running game will help quarterback Ian Book and the Irish offense. The senior signal-caller has taken his game to the next level this season. He has gone from a solid and steady option under center to a big-time playmaker.
Notre Dame had struggled in recent seasons when playing elite opponents. That has changed in 2020 mainly because this program has upgraded in the trenches. They controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball during the regular-season meeting. Not only did the Irish rush for over 200 yards behind a big night from Williams, but they held the Tigers to just 34 yards on the ground as a team. Notre Dame’s improvements on defense and along both lines of scrimmage are what has given them the chance to when the ACC title in their first and only season in the league.
The loss in November was Clemson’s first defeat outside of the playoff in the last three seasons. They were, of course, missing Lawrence, but his back-up D.J. Uiagalelei had a huge game in his place. It was the run defense and fumbles by the offense that cost the Tigers their third consecutive undefeated regular season. Travis Etienne had one of his worst games in orange and purple with only 28 yards on the ground and one of the team’s three lost fumbles. The senior tailback has only two 100 yard games on the season, a far cry from his record-breaking production his first three years.
The defense also struggled to stop the Irish in the first meeting. They allowed 518 yards and over 50% conversions on third down. They have barely allowed more yards in their last two games combined. That shows just how good Notre Dame played that night, but also that the Tigers’ defense was not up to its usual standard. Clemson was missing multiple starters on that side of the ball during the first meeting. Having Tyler Davis back in the middle of the defensive line will help them hold up in the trenches better this time around. It would also benefit the Tigers if they could harass Book more often, and get some big plays from ends Bryan Bresee and K.J. Henry.
ACC Title Game; Key Players
The Irish will need Williams to have another big game if they want to beat the Tigers twice in one season. Freshman tight end Michael Mayer will also need to be a factor, especially in the red zone. Notre Dame had to settle for field goals too often in the first meeting, and that allowed Clemson to hang around even as they struggled in the first half. In order to win the ACC title and secure a playoff spot, they can’t rely on field goals this time around.
The Tigers will have Lawrence under center for the championship game, and that should be a big boost. However, the passing game was not the issue in the November defeat. Etienne has to break out of his slump and create some big plays for the Clemson offense. If they are held under 50 yards rushing again, they won’t be able to win this game. On defense, Davis being back is a huge lift. The Tigers can’t get pushed around in the run game again. Baylon Spector was all over the field the first go around, and he’ll need to have another big game.