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Cotton Bowl - Clemson vs. Notre Dame Preview: Depth Chart & Statistical Analysis

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NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Wake Forest Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

It’s amazing how quickly the season flies by. The Tigers had two thrilling games in the first half of the season (Texas A&M and Syracuse), but have won their last eight games by 20+ with an average margin of victory of 38. I’ve certainly been guilty of looking ahead to the playoff during that run of blowouts, but let’s pause for a moment to appreciate an undefeated regular season.

Since Coach Howard took over in 1940, Clemson has finished the year (including postseason games) with zero losses just three times and with one loss only five times. What Clemson has already accomplished thus far makes this a resoundingly successful year, but even more lies ahead.

Before we dive into analysis of the Notre Dame matchup, let’s begin with our usual caveat of how we use recruiting metrics.

In our analysis of the depth charts, we divide the offense and the defense into three portions each. For the offense, the starting QB, the starting O-line, and the two-deep for the remaining skill positions (WR, TE, RB) are each weighted to represent one-third of the overall offense rating. Similarly on defense, the two-deep at D-line, linebacker, and in the secondary are each weighted to represent one-third of the overall defense rating, regardless of scheme.

This shouldn’t have to be said, but there are always players who overperform their original star rating (e.g., Hunter Renfrow, Chris Finke) as well as those who underperform their star ratings. Additionally, there are occasions where the less talented team wins (e.g., 2016 Clemson vs. Pittsburgh), but there are exponentially more examples where the more talented team wins (e.g., 2009-2018 Clemson vs. Wake Forest, 2012-2018 Clemson vs. NC State, etc.).

With all that said, let’s begin on offense:

This is where Clemson has the pure talent advantage and as is generally the case, it bears out in the statistics. Clemson ranks 5th in yards per game and 7th in S&P+ offense while Notre Dame ranks 28th in YPG and 26th in S&P+.

The most glaring gap in the bar chart above is at QB where we compare Trevor Lawrence and Ian Book directly, but the full two-star gap exaggerates any advantage Clemson may have here, especially considering Lawrence is a true freshman and Ian Book is a junior. A look at their stats shows they’ve been relatively comparable. In fact, Book has better numbers in several areas:

Trevor Lawrence:
8.0 yards per attempt
65% completion percentage
2,606 passing yards
24-4 TD-INT ratio
144 rushing yards
1 rushing TD

Ian Book:
8.8 yards per attempt
70% completion percentage
2,468 passing yards
19-6 TD-INT ratio
250 rushing yards
4 rushing TDs

Fortunately, Lawrence isn’t going at it alone. Clemson has the advantage with their skill position talent averaging half a star better than the Fighting Irish. “Notre Dame doesn’t have enough speed.” That’s the jibe often thrown at the Irish. It’s both true and false. It’s true that guys like Tee Higgins, Hunter Renfrow, and Travis Etienne have more foot speed than Notre Dame’s offensive playmakers. It’ll will be an advantage for Clemson, but the implication that they like explosiveness as a result isn’t true. The teams rank 34th (Clemson) and 35th (Notre Dame) in isoPPP (a measure of explosiveness). Notre Dame uses their size to find windows and make explosive plays downfield. Wide receivers Miles Boykin and Chase Claypool are 6’4” and TE Alize Mack is 6’5”. It’ll be interesting to see how the Irish scheme to use that height. Fortunately, Clemson has more height in the secondary than in past years with 6’3” Isaiah Simmons, 6’2” Trayvon Mullen, and 6’1” AJ Terrell. Shorter players like Jalen Williams (5’10”) and Mark Field (5’11”) will have to overcome the height difference which the Irish will surely try to exploit.

Notre Dame has done a great job recruiting offensive linemen over the years and you see that with their 0.40 average star rating advantage in that area. Despite that, they rank outside the top 100 in line yards (an advanced metric for run blocking) and outside the top 30 in sack rate (and advanced metric for passing blocking), while Clemson ranks in the top 20 in both line yards and sack rate. Clemson’s starters are more experienced, which may help explain this. Notre Dame is also better in short-yardage running situations, an area where the offensive line does most of the work.

While two good QBs will be battling in the Cotton Bowl, Clemson has more talent around Lawrence at the skill positions and a more experienced better performing offensive line. As a result, Clemson’s offense is the better unit. This is where Clemson needs to capitalize to win the game.

Things are closer on defense:

Clemson ranks #1 in the S&P+ defense rankings while Notre Dame is just barely behind at #4. Again, performance lines up with talent as we see very similar overall talent though it’s constructed very differently.

Clemson’s defensive line is incredible and holds more than a half star advantage over Notre Dame. Conversely, Notre Dame has more talent at linebacker. The secondary is deadlocked at a 3.38 average star rating. While the Irish offense doesn’t have the speed Clemson has, I don’t know that you’d make the same argument about their defense.

Clemson’s defense is attacking. They force the issue. They’re #4 in Havoc Rate. Notre Dame is #42 in Havoc rate. Notre Dame is a bend, but don’t break defense. The problem for Notre Dame is that Lawrence has too good of an arm and is too good of a decision maker for them to lay back and hope he makes a mistake. They’ll need to break their tendency and cause more havoc if they are to beat the Tigers.

While they may not wreak havoc regularly, Notre Dame has enough on defense to really test the Tigers. There’s a dirty little secret about our beloved Tigers: they haven’t played good defenses. Based on simple Total Defense (YPG allowed), the best defense they’ve faced all season is Texas A&M ranked at 36th. The next best is (your Camellia Bowl Champion) Georgia Southern ranked at 44th and then Georgia Tech at 46th. Notre Dame is 21st.

S&P+ advanced stats that accounts for the number of plays defended and cuts out garbage time are more accurate. A look there has Notre Dame at #4 and Texas A&M at #42. According to S&P+, the best defense we’ve faced is Boston College (#26). That BC team held Clemson to a season-low 27 points.

The Tigers have had a lot of success running the ball this season, but much of that has been against poor rush defenses. They’ve only faced three top 30 rush defenses (S&P+) and averaged under 4.0 YPC across those three games. It’s very possible that Notre Dame is able to mostly stop the run game without completely selling-out and getting torched through the air like NC State did. If that’s the case, punching a ticket to a third National Championship game in four years won’t be easy.

You also have the complicating factor of the special teams where Clemson ranks 99th. Notre Dame hasn’t been great, ranking 62, but if this game becomes a defensive struggle, then you worry about the punting game as Will Spiers is averaging just under 40 yards per punt.

NCAA Football: Clemson at Texas A&M John Glaser-USA TODAY Sports

Clemson is favored by the oddsmakers in Vegas and the advanced stats. They have more skill position talent and a O-line with more experience and better performances to date. They’ve looked more impressive winning by larger margins against the same opponents. That all certainly should lend confidence, but the truth is the data can only tell us so much in this one. Clemson hasn’t played a really good defense, and Notre Dame hasn’t played a really good offense (Stanford at #22 is the highest rated by S&P+). Clemson’s #7 rated offense could break their defense... or it could get stymied and make Trevor Lawrence look like a freshman.

For my bet, I think Lawrence has shown tremendous growth over the season. I’m not sure I would pick Clemson if Lawrence hadn’t gained the experience he has. While Clemson hasn’t seen a defense like this, I believe they’ll get the job done because they can attack all parts of the field with immense talent at QB, WR, and RB. It’ll be too hard to hold an offense like that much below 28 points. Meanwhile, there’s no doubting Clemson’s defense, which held Texas A&M and NC State - two offenses ranked above Notre Dame - to 33 combined points. I expect Clemson’s #1 ranked defense to again rise to the challenge.

Clemson wins 28-17

If you’d like to hear more thoughts on the upcoming Cotton Bowl, check out our video with MarkRogersTV: