Merriam-Webster defines semifinal as “being next to last in an elimination tournament.” That is exactly what the 2018 Cotton Bowl will serve as on December 29th. The last stop in the College Football Playoff (CFP) before the championship game. Clemson is looking to breeze by Notre Dame in hopes to win their second national championship in three years. Notre Dame has been on the big stage before, playing in the National Championship game in 2012. Although, the 2012 National Championship game was before the College Football Playoff’s inception. Notre Dame has not won a national title since 1988. At this point, the Clemson Tigers are seasoned pros, as this is their fourth consecutive College Football Semifinal appearance. Let’s take a look below at the 2018 Cotton Bowl preview.
2018 Cotton Bowl Preview: College Football Playoff Semifinal
WHAT: Goodyear Cotton Bowl
WHEN: December 29, 2018; 4:00 pm ET
WHERE: Arlington, Texas; ESPN
TEAMS: No. 2 Clemson (13-0) vs. No. 3 Notre Dame (12-0)
Both teams enter the 2018 Cotton Bowl undefeated, but each team’s season could not have looked different. Clemson won all but two games on their way to an undefeated season by 20 or more points. Notre Dame, on the other hand, won half of their games by 10 points or less, with games often coming down to the wire. Clemson may have had a less nerve-wracking path to the CFP semifinal, but as Fighting Irish fans know all too well, “a win, is a win, is a win.”
The Tigers started the season with quarterback drama. Head coach Dabo Swinney made the call to bench Kelly Bryant in favor of freshman Trevor Lawrence. With Bryant deciding to leave school and transfer at the end of September, the spotlight was mainly on the quarterback drama. Meanwhile, Lawrence was putting up numbers on the field. The freshman has averaged a 64.8 pass completion percentage this season. Further, coming into this game he has 2,606 passing yards with 24 touchdowns and just four interceptions. In addition to Lawrence, Clemson has a balanced rushing attack as well with running back Travis Etienne. The sophomore running back has nearly 1,500 rushing yards this season with 21 rushing touchdowns.
The Clemson defense has kept up with the success of the offense this season as well. The unit allowed more than 20 points in only four games this season, with the high being 35 against South Carolina in the last regular season game. The defensive front for the Tigers is their strength. Defensive end Clelin Ferrell has 17.5 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks this season. He also has a forced fumble for a touchdown as well. Ferrell is not alone in his dominance, defensive tackle Christian Wilkins has 12.5 tackles for loss with 4.5 sacks. Both players have been named to the AP All-America first team this season.
On paper, Clemson has the edge. They are experienced in this game as well as being dominant on both offense and defense. Finally, the Tigers won big in all but four games this season. College football, though, throws wrinkles and Clemson got one this week. Three players will not be playing in the 2018 Cotton Bowl due to failing an NCAA drug test. This is a distraction that is not needed before a big game. One that could be on the mind of the players on Saturday.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Notre Dame is also undefeated entering this game. The Fighting Irish have wins against ranked Michigan, Stanford, and Syracuse. Michigan and Stanford were both close calls for Notre Dame, but Syracuse at the end of the season was much easier. Notre Dame had their own share of quarterback drama this season as well, head coach Brian Kelly chose to start junior Ian Book over senior Brandon Wimbush. Wimbush led the Fighting Irish to a 9-3 season in 2017, so it was an interesting move at first. Book has proven that he was the right choice though. The junior signal caller has a 70% pass completion percentage. He has thrown for 2,468 yards with 19 touchdowns and six interceptions through nine games.
In addition to Ian Book reviving the Notre Dame offense, running back Dexter Williams has kept it rolling after getting over his four-game suspension. The senior running back has 941 rushing yards and 12 rushing touchdowns through only eight games this season. Senior receiver Miles Boykin has also shined this season. Boykin has 54 receptions for 803 yards and eight touchdowns. He is the leading receiver for the Irish and a favorite target of Book. The offense will have to continue rolling to keep up with a Clemson offense that scores a lot of points. The Notre Dame defense is not bad by any means as senior linebacker Te’Von Coney has 107 total tackles, an interception, and a fumble recovery this season. But, the offense needs to be precise to get around a very good Clemson defensive front.
Things to note
The last time Notre Dame was in contention for the BCS National Championship they also had a 12-0 season. They also lost to Alabama in the BCS National Championship game 42-14. It was not very pretty. They are 12-0 again and are looking for a better result against Clemson to make it to their first CFP championship game. Clemson has been in this game four seasons in a row. They understand what it takes to win this game, but Notre Dame is also used to being doubted. The Fighting Irish will likely play off of an underdog mentality on Saturday, but they too are undefeated and had big wins to get where they are. The beauty of college football is that it is unpredictable, no matter how hard we try, which is why the 2018 Cotton Bowl will be more interesting than anyone thinks.