There’s a lot more at stake in this year’s ACC championship game compare to previous ones.
A new team thrown into the mix is a break from tradition and gives a different feel to it all. If 3rd-ranked Clemson expects to make a record sixth consecutive College Football Playoff, they’ll have to take down No. 2 Notre Dame in one of college football’s most pivotal rematches in recent history.
“It should be an unbelievable matchup in Charlotte,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney told The State last week.
The two teams battled into overtime on Nov. 7 with the then top-ranked Tigers, omit Trevor Lawrence, dropping their first regular season game since 2017 with a 47-40 loss to the Fighting Irish. A match-up that likely would’ve been held over to the
CFB Playoff is now twice as nice in ACC play due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Notre Dame (10-0) went from being an FBS independent to becoming the 15th member of the ACC in order to have a full schedule this season.
Clemson (9-1) is no stranger to making the postseason trip to Charlotte having won the previous five ACC Championships. However, those wins came over a majority of sub-par opponents— No. 10 North Carolina, No. 23 Virginia Tech, No. 7 Miami, unranked Pitt and No. 23 Virginia. And some of those games weren’t even close. The Tigers have won the past three title games by an average margin of 37 points.
Traditionally, one of the best programs in college football— and despite the ills of COVID-19— this year has been no exception for Swinney’s team. “The number one thing is hopefully we can have our team, everybody healthy and ready to go,” Swinney said. “Obviously, we had a bunch of guys that didn’t play in that game, so getting those guys ready to go is No. 1.” Except Clemson goes up against one of their most equal counterpart who’s also vying for a Playoff berth.
A defensive fight is expected to be front and center in this year’s ACC Championship. Clemson touts the 9th-ranked defense in FBS, allowing opponents an average of 18.3 points per game (2nd, ACC). They’ve been slightly outdone by Notre Dame this season, who has allowed 17.1 points per game (1st, ACC). But overall, the 13th-ranked defense for the Fighting Irish have given up more yards than Clemson with an average of 314.5 yards per contest compared to the Tiger’s 302.0 average, respectively.
One of the differences for Swinney in the rematch is an emphasis on discipline. “We’ve obviously got to eliminate the big plays. We gave up a lot of big, big, big plays in some costly situations.” On the other side, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly sees the opportunity of winning a first-ever ACC title as one that will shake up the Playoff projections for the better. “Well, we got a matchup with the team that’s camped out in the playoffs with Clemson,” Kelly told SB Nation’s One Foot Down.
“So, when you’re looking at your schedule, and you know that Clemson’s on it and now you’ve gotten the opportunity to join the ACC, obviously it puts you in a pretty good position.”
Notre Dame and Clemson each have comparable offensive production and both are ranked within the top 20 for total offense among FBS teams. They’re led by two future NFL quarterbacks, the aforementioned Lawrence and Ian Book for the Fighting Irish. Both are Heisman hopefuls heading into the final weeks of the season. Lawrence’s stats are better compared to those put up by Book. All with two fewer games for the Clemson passer due to COVID-19. Lawrence has thrown for 2,431 yards and 20 touchdowns to three interceptions in eight games. None of the three picks have come in the past four games. Book has 2,382 passing yards with 15 touchdowns and two interceptions.
No. 2 Notre Dame meets No. 3 Clemson at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C. on Saturday, Dec. 19. Kickoff is scheduled for 4 p.m. with a nationally televised broadcast on ABC.