Why Clemson vs. Notre Dame Has Unfairly Become CFB Semi No One Cares About

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistDecember 28, 2018

The spotlight isn't shining as brightly on Dabo Swinney, Brian Kelly and their teams.
The spotlight isn't shining as brightly on Dabo Swinney, Brian Kelly and their teams.Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

In case you haven't heard, the College Football Playoff has two semifinal games. Perhaps to your surprise, it's not two rounds of Alabama vs. Oklahoma.

Prior to that much-hyped Orange Bowl showdown, second-ranked Clemson will take on No. 3 Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl. Considering the winner will advance to the national championship, this matchup should have a regular presence in the headlines.

But right now, it's more of an afterthought.

Much of the CFP semifinal attention has centered on Tua Tagovailoa, Jalen Hurts and Kyler Murray. How healthy will Tagovailoa be? Is a full-strength Hurts more effective than a slightly limited Tagovailoa? Will Murray stick to his baseball contract or declare for the NFL draft?

Murray won a close race for the Heisman Trophy over Tagovailoa; will the Crimson Tide defense be able to silence the OU star? If it doesn't, can Oklahoma's problematic defense do enough to stop Alabama's running game and whichever quarterback plays?

As if those aren't enough, there's the sideline clash between rising star Lincoln Riley and legendary coach Nick Saban.

Oh, and in the meantime, Justin Fields decided to transfer from Georgia. A 5-star quarterback in the 2018 class, he's exploring options elsewhere after serving as the backup this season. That report also captured the college football world for a day or two.

The result? We're eight paragraphs into a piece about Clemson and Notre Dame and really just getting to Clemson and Notre Dame.

Neither program could do anything about those Orange Bowl discussions. To this point, the biggest moment in the news cycle is the possible suspension for Clemson star defender Dexter Lawrence.

But the Cotton Bowl's unassuming presence is also a product of Notre Dame's 2018 season.

Ian Book will lead the Irish into the Cotton Bowl against Clemson's vaunted defense.
Ian Book will lead the Irish into the Cotton Bowl against Clemson's vaunted defense.Jim Young/Associated Press

Despite being a nationally recognized brand, the Fighting Irish never attained complete respect like Alabama or Clemson. Part of that is self-inflicted.

Notre Dame labored in unimpressive wins over Ball State, Vanderbilt and Pitt. Even with an 8-0 record through October, an ugly November trend lingered. Over the last few years, Brian Kelly's teams have consistently faltered in the final regular-season month.

But the Irish went 4-0! Isn't that enough?

They needed a late touchdown to put away Northwestern, took full advantage of an injury to Syracuse quarterback Eric Dungey and played an unimpressive game at USC. If someone didn't believe in Notre Dame, that stretch wasn't convincing.

"We know that people don't think we belong here," quarterback Ian Book told ESPN during Cotton Bowl media day.

Even if the Irish are that good, though, their best expected opponents didn't provide many chances to show it.

Stanford was ranked No. 7 at the time of their matchup but lost three of the next four games after falling to Notre Dame. Virginia Tech lost quarterback Josh Jackson to injury in September. Florida State flopped in Willie Taggart's first year, Syracuse lost Dungey and USC was mediocre.

Before the season, the schedule looked tough on paper. When the teams hit the field, it wasn't the same story.

That's not Notre Dame's fault. The Irish don't need to apologize for beating below-expectation teams. And the schedule was set years ago; 2018 happened to become a perfect disaster. They ended the regular season with a 16.5-point average margin of victory.

Nevertheless, perception shapes the narrative. And the comparison to Clemsonagain, on paperis hardly one at all.

Like Notre Dame, the Tigers changed quarterbacks midway through the year. Star freshman Trevor Lawrence supplanted Kelly Bryant, as Book replaced Brandon Wimbush. But the biggest difference is how the teams performed afterward.

Yes, the Irish improved substantially. Yet after Clemson navigated Lawrence's injury against Syracuse, the first-string defense didn't allow a touchdown in six straight games. Overall, from October through the ACC title game, the Tigers won every game by 20-plus points with an average margin of 38.3 points.

Notre Dame never trailed in nine of its 12 contests, a truly remarkable accomplishment for the 12-0 squad. Still, that was a level of dominance well below Clemson's performance.

But this is simply one writer talking, right?

The wise people in the desert are only interested in making money. Clemson is a 12.5-point favorite, per OddsShark. Plus, of the eight potential championship game matchups, Notre Dame's four involvements include three with the lowest odds.

Oklahoma is a similarly large underdog, but the Murray-led scoring attack is historically efficient. Notre Damewhile improved with Book behind centeris good, not great. To win in the College Football Playoff, the offense had better be outstanding. Oklahoma, Alabama and Clemson rank No. 1, 2 and 3 nationally in yards per play, respectively. Notre Dame is tied for 34th.

All this seemingly negative talk has offered a proverbial chip on the shoulder for the Irish. They're underdogs, and they know it. Not only is this Clemson team excellent, but the program is also making its fourth straight CFP appearance. This isn't anything new.

Suggesting the Cotton Bowl deserves more attention is fine and good. It's also understandable why it hasn't shared the headlines.

The tempered hype won't matter Saturday. For many defensible reasons, Clemson will be the popular choice.

But the Irish will finally have a chance in the brightest spotlight to prove their worth.

         

All recruiting information via 247Sports. Stats from NCAA.com, cfbstats.com or B/R research. Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow Bleacher Report CFB Writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.

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