Cotton Bowl Preview: The Big Stage Awaits

Notre Dame heads to Arlington, Texas to participate in the Cotton Bowl for the 8th time in school history. It’s a bowl game that was once steeped in a ton of history, went through a funk for nearly two decades, and has found a rebirth in the new College Football Playoff system.

In 2010, the game was moved from the old Cotton Bowl Stadium which has been relegated to hosting the annual Red River Showdown and the First Responder Bowl–the latter cancelled this past Wednesday due to inclement weather and really who wants to watch Boston College play football anyway? For the last 8 seasons, the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium has hosted the Cotton Bowl and in 2015–once new contracts were signed–the bowl game was inserted into the College Football Playoff rotation and officially hoisted back up to major bowl status.

The last playoff game here was following the 2015 season when Alabama defeated Michigan State 38-0. The Fighting Irish will look to put up a much better effort as heavy underdogs against Clemson.

Notre Dame (+12.5) vs. Clemson

The 2019 Cotton Bowl Classic
College Football Playoff Semifinal
AT&T Stadium
Arlington, Texas
Date: Saturday, December 29, 2018
Time: 4:00 PM ET
Series: 2-1-0 Clemson

Here is a collection of preview articles leading up to Saturday’s game:

Film Room: Game Plan Notre Dame Offense vs. Clemson Defense

Clemson Defense Scouting Report

Clemson Running Game Scouting Report

Clemson Offense vs. Notre Dame Defense Advanced Stats Preview

How Clemson Became an Elite Program

Trevor Lawrence Scouting Report

Clemson Defense vs. Notre Dame Offense Advanced Stats Preview

What Though the Odds Be Great or Small

3 Pre-Game Topics

Irish Chip on the Shoulder

Notre Dame, even through many ups and downs over the last 30+ years, is rarely a double-digit underdog. The Irish went through an 8-year stretch of never being one during the Lou Holtz era although the program went 9 out of 10 seasons beginning in 2000 while facing those odds at least once a year.

Here are all the 10+ point underdog games since 1985:

1985, Miami (+12.5) 58-7 Loss
1994, Florida State (+12.5) 23-16 Loss
1995, Florida State (+10.5) 31-26 Loss
1997, Michigan (+14.5) 21-14 Loss
1997, LSU (+10) 24-6 Win
2000, Nebraska (+12.5) 27-24 Loss
2001, Nebraska (+13.5) 27-10 Loss
2002, Florida State (+11) 34-23 Win
2002, USC (+11) 44-13 Loss
2003, Michigan (+10) 38-0 Loss
2003, Purdue (+10.5) 23-10 Loss
2003, Florida State (+12.5) 37-0 Loss
2004, Michigan (+12.5) 28-20 Win
2004, USC (+24) 41-10 Loss
2005, USC (+13) 34-31 Loss
2007, Penn State (+17.5) 31-10 Loss
2007, Purdue (+21.5) 33-19 Loss
2007, UCLA (+21) 20-6 Win
2007, Boston College (+13.5) 27-14 Loss
2007, USC (+16.5) 38-0 Loss
2008, USC (+33.5) 38-3 Loss
2009, USC (+10) 34-27 Loss
2009, Stanford (+10) 45-38 Loss
2012, Oklahoma (+10.5) 30-13 Win
2012, Alabama (+10) 42-14 Loss
2013, Stanford (+16.5) 27-20 Loss
2016, USC (+17.5) 45-27 Loss

Notre Dame is 5-22 straight up in these games but a solid 14-12-1 against the spread. A case could be made, and certainly is being talked about in the locker room, that it’s entirely disrespectful to have the Irish be such large underdogs on Saturday. Let’s hope they use that to their advantage.

Field Goals vs. Touchdowns

Notre Dame may need a few long touchdowns plays to win this game because when things get tight in the red zone Clemson statistically has a major advantage.

The Tigers offense has converted red zone touchdowns 78.79% of the time which is tops among all Power 5 teams this year and will face a Notre Dame defense that was 34th nationally in red zone defensive touchdowns at 54.55 percent. On the other side, the Irish offense wasn’t great at 62.75% which is 62nd nationally, while Clemson’s defense allowed touchdowns in the red zone just 45.16% of the time, good for 7th nationally.

Close to a National Title

On the one hand, Notre Dame faces very long odds to win the next two games. They are heavy underdogs to Clemson on Saturday and most sportsbooks would set a line well in to double-digits in favor of Alabama should the Fighting Irish make the National Championship against the Crimson Tide.

It’s truly not 1988 anymore when the Irish went 10-2 against the spread on their run to the school’s last title and were only underdogs in two games: Miami (-3.5) and USC (-4). When Notre Dame made the title game they were 5-point favorites against West Virginia 30 years ago.

The Irish surely would need some of that famous luck. Fans could certainly talk themselves into one upset but facing Alabama 9 days later right afterward is brutal. Nevertheless, Oklahoma could spring their own upset and as the New Year arrives Irish fans could see a title coming into focus in a realistic way.

2 Key Opponents

WR Tee Higgins

Our scouting reports above mention several players but Higgins only briefly. The sophomore was part of a loaded class from the state of Tennessee which included a trio of 5-stars (Higgins being one) and 7 players in the Top 120 nationally. Tee Higgins was the #2 receiver in the country behind Michigan’s Donovan Peoples-Jones–and while he saw plenty of action as a freshman–this 2018 season has been his breakout campaign leading Clemson in all statistical receiving categories.

Higgins is baby-faced but stands a stout 6’4″ 210 pounds with plenty of speed and playmaking ability. Being able to get Julian Love lined up across from him and not being out-muscled will be crucial.

DB Isaiah Simmons

Simmons is mentioned several times in our defensive scouting report. The Tigers plucked the defender out of Kansas as a 3-star and gave him a redshirt back in 2016. Last year, he was hyper-productive with 3 tackles for loss and 5 pass break-ups in just 258 snaps before jumping into the starting lineup this fall.

Although listed as a safety he’s basically linebacker sized (6’2″ 230) and is the nickel in Clemson’s base defense. The hope is that Notre Dame can take advantage of that size by countering with speed but Simmons has been really tough to deal with on the edge this season leading Clemson with 44 solo tackles and chipping in 8 tackles for loss.

1 Prediction

So, here we are in the College Football Playoffs for the first time. It feels good, it feels special, and it feels completely deserved.

It’s important to remind ourselves how the Irish got here. Heading into the season we discussed that the defense under Clark Lea had a chance to be better than what was left behind by Mike Elko but it would be close. Through 12 games, the defense has been much better, moving from 27th to 4th in S&P+, giving up 4 points fewer per game, and dropping yards per play by an impressive half a yard.

The defense would have to carry the team because I was not a believer in this offense. Too much was being lost up front, there was a lack of proven playmakers to get the ball to, and I wasn’t convinced Wimbush could or would improve to an average college passer.

Yes, I called for Ian Book to start following the Vanderbilt game (that comment section is a fun re-read a few months later) but I didn’t think he’d be this good either right away or ever. I was aghast at how many were unwilling to make a change when the offense debuted at nearly 70th in S&P+ after week 3 and looked to be on life support. Give Kelly and the coaching staff credit for making that bold move, though.

This game is distilled for me down to a couple of factors pulling in opposite directions. That is, I don’t think we’re really that talented on offense but I’m expecting Chip Long to call a great game and things should get a bit easier without the mountain in the middle defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence who is officially suspended.

On defense, I’m prepared for Clemson’s offense to humble the Irish at times but I am sure this will be mitigated by Lea playing super bend-but-don’t-break, praying they can hold on in the red zone, and hope Trevor Lawrence makes some freshman mistakes. We’ve seen how this can be frustrating but ultimately lead to 12 wins and statistics show Lawrence improves when he faces more than 4 pass rushers–no way will Lea come out firing and try to put Lawrence on the ground early except for obvious passing downs.

Clark Lea is being overshadowed by Brent Venables and Clemson’s #1 defense which is fair, however, this is an opportunity for the Irish DC to put in a good effort and if he does this is likely a very close football game. A romp by Clemson’s offense wouldn’t surprise me because they are super talented but I’m leaning towards this tough Notre Dame defense being a rock to keep this competitive. They’ve earned that trust.

The natural progression of the modern game allows me to think Chip Long will be able to adjust a lot better and have some tricks up his sleeve for Clemson. That, and Book’s calming accuracy should combine to make things difficult for the Tigers.

Still, I can’t overcome the difference in skill between these two offenses. The playoffs features the 1st (Oklahoma), 2nd (Alabama), and 7th (Clemson) rated offenses and with an emerging quarterback Trevor Lawrence the Tigers have a legit claim to be no worse than 3rd since Kelly Bryant transferred. Notre Dame has the same type of improvement since the insertion of Ian Book and Dexter Williams but it’s a different game taking the 26th rated offense and believing their comfortably in the Top 20 instead of in the race for the best in the country.

Truth be told, many of the Irish on offense have seemingly played above their potential which is to say they’re a lot better than I thought. I think just about everyone on offense is going to need to play at a really high level (especially the offensive line) and witness a sensational game from Book in the neighborhood of 400 total yards. In the end, getting frustrated in the red zone where it’s difficult to scheme away from Clemson’s defensive line is my predicted difference in a tight game. The Irish running game hasn’t been efficient enough and that comes home to roost in the playoffs.

Notre Dame 23

Clemson 30

By |2018-12-28T07:16:41+00:00December 27th, 2018|Football|26 Comments

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Concrete Charlie
Concrete Charlie

Scrolled right to the bottom for that??? Sheesh!


Pretty much echoes what I think about this game. This isn’t 2012 as we’re better on offense and I think that team was largely happy to be there. If some breaks happen we could win but we’ll need that and some great efforts from a lot of guys. Can our offensive line play the game of their lives? Can we scheme some big plays for Williams? I think Armstrong will be a factor in the passing game. As you said we have to stop them in the red zone. Can the pressure get to Lawrence? I don’t think so but he is a true freshman.

More Noise
More Noise

Good points and questions, dpet. Not to forget poor Manti and the phishing thing. I was in Miami for that one and what I thought I saw showed up years later when I watched that horrible moment. Manti played the worst possible game, all his reads were off and he was a second slow on virtually every play. I earnestly hope that all our guys on this ND team (and they do come across as truly super guys) have their heads screwed on 100% right in this endeavor.
The only issue I have about Lawrence being a true freshman, is that he has a whole season under his belt — more games as a starter than Ian. So I do think they will put up some points.
Unfortunately, overall I have to agree with Eric and you. But I do think there is a chance to pull out the upset — 30% maybe? What tho’ those odds…


That’s rough man, bringing up Bob Weisingham again.


Only quibble is we beat FSU in 2002 but that list wasn’t quite as bad as the 100 worst losses but not exactly a fun recollection of my history as a 33 year old Nd fan


So…all the “Notre Dame wins by 20” articles aren’t coming out until tomorrow? I’m going to have a real hard time getting my hopes up sky-high on just a few hours time. I’ll try, though.


Two things:
1. I can’t get over what a unique situation this Irish team is in this year. Because of their history of crappy post season performances they are being under sold by everyone. Add to that the new trend to put a high trust in advanced stats to predict winners and you get the feeling that most college football fans and some “experts” don’t think Notre Dame belongs in the game, let alone win. Thank God they still play the game on the field and not on a computer.
2. Do you ever think that the only game the Miami Hurricanes have gotten up for the last several years was the one they played against us last year?


I didn’t think we’d break 20 against Clemson because of that Red Zone defense, but losing Lawrence is huge for them. I know they’ve got talented guys ready to fill in behind him, but none of them are players who could have been 1st round NFL draft picks LAST season. He requires a double team in every single short yardage rushing situation; he completely changes your offense. I was going to put us around 17-19 points with him on the field, but I think we’re up to 22-24 with him off, simply because of his red zone presence. And I think that could be the difference in this game. I’m rarely optimistic (I refuse to click back on that Vandy article, but I believe I had our ceiling as a 10 win team with Book), but what the hell:

ND 23 Clemson 20 – Julian Love comes up with an enormous interception in the end zone when Clemson tries to use Higgins to “Arcega-Whiteside” him and fails, which proves to be the difference in this game.

More Noise
More Noise

Good on ya, MikeyB. The team had better be visualizing success, because it’s sure hard for the fan base!


I wish I could rec this comment more than once

Brendan R

I like it man. The big thing for me with Lawrence is that he and Wilkins can both eat blockers alive, but you can’t double team both of them so you’re kinda screwed. Albert Huggins, Lawrence’s backup, is no slouch, but now he’s going to have to handle maybe three times his normal volume and he doesn’t command the same attention Lawrence does. So you can double Wilkins and let Kraemer/Banks try to handle Huggins straight up.

Ferrell and Bryant are still super dangerous on the edges, but again, if you can hold up better on the interior it gives you more options to handle them. I’m beginning to believe in the dream.

Brendan R

I could see almost any outcome in this game. I think there’s a non-zero chance we’ll win a blowout, but “non-zero” is the nicest thing I can say about that. I think it’s slightly less implausible that Clemson will win a blowout – things could snowball, but I just think this defense is too good to get steamrolled.

I think the spread is stupidly large and it’s based on people betting who haven’t watched this team and are connecting an entirely different roster from six years ago to it. FEI has it as Clemson -4. S&P+, cutting out the first three games of our season, as it as something like Clemson -6. Neither, obviously, accounts for the loss of Lawrence, but even moving a point for losing a DT would be unusual. So let’s say those are about right.

I think Clemson is coming into this game overconfident; Dabo’s “golf swing” comment today was the icing on the cake. They haven’t seen a defense of anywhere near this quality all season, according to S&P+; the closest thing to the 4th-ranked Irish since Trevor Lawrence took over was 28th-ranked Boston College, who held them to 20 offensive points. Does that mean we’ll shut them out? No, of course not. But I really like our chances to hold them under 30, probably under 27.

So the big question is whether we can get 24+ on them. The more I think about it, the more I think we can. I think there will be opportunities against their defense if we can protect Book well enough. The OL has been very good in pass protection all year and is now healthier than it has been since maybe week 2. You know Chip Long will pull out a few beauties to attack their aggressiveness.

I’m going to say the two teams trade punches for the first three and a half quarters. With six minutes to play and the game tied, ND goes on a 5:30 drive that ends in a Justin Yoon field goal. Clemson gets the ball back on their own 23 with no timeouts and 0:26 remaining. Lea goes deep into his playbook to pull out some wacky looks, and just like Michigan in the season opener, Clemson’s hopes die on a strip-sack of their wunderkind QB in the waning moments. Book kneels it once last time to punch Notre Dame’s ticket to the national title game.

ND 27, Clemson 24.

Brendan R

Given the final stanza I’m predicting, something else worth mentioning:

Ian Book is 8th nationally in passer rating. Friend of the Site Jamie Uyeyama noted yesterday that he’s fourth nationally in second-half passer rating and first nationally in fourth quarter rating, while Trevor Lawrence isn’t in the top 100 in fourth quarter rating. He hasn’t had to play many fourth quarters, of course, but I’m not sure that really weakens the point.

We know that Book turns it up when the lights are hottest. If we can keep it close through three quarters, I like his chances of bringing it home.


Tell us more about this golf swing comment


Dabo was asked what he admired most about Kelly, his response “his golf swing”.

Brendan R

Adding to this… They asked Kelly what he admired about Dabo and he said his attention to detail and consistency, then they asked Dabo and he said Kelly’s golf swing and after expounding on that for a bit also mentioned his longevity.

So basically nothing, in coaching terms.


Hopefully that little slap in the face is enough to get BK to really ratchet up the offense and totally bury Clemson with everything we’ve got. I’d love to see him get up a few scores and keep all the starters in to really rub it in his smug little face.

Russell Knox
Russell Knox

I love the optimism in this. We go from, hopefully, eeking out a win somehow. To, get up a few scores and keep all of the starters in.

That’s what I’m talking about!

More Noise
More Noise

You betcha Russell. At this stage, I am so worn down by advanced stats and the inevitability of losing to a better team, that I am forgetting that we do not know they are a better team until we play them, and we have some very high character stud Notre dame football players strapping it up!

More Noise
More Noise

Wow Brendan — this surpasses eloquence. Kudos for super informed and positively focused fandom!


I feel exactly how I felt going into the Michigan game this year. I keep waffling back and forth. Clemson hasn’t seen a defense anywhere close to what Lea has in store for him, ND is going all in with the nobody-believes-in-us card, Clemson lost maybe their best player, etc. But even with Lawrence out, their defense is crazy good. All the previews I’ve seen say Clemson’s weakness is their pass D and Book’s accuracy along with his big receivers should be able to exploit it (or it at least they say he has to exploit it to give the Irish a chance.). But that weakness is still 6th in S&P+ (!!!). And ND’s defense is very much a BBDB who’s better at pass defense. Clemson has an insane stable of running backs and an awesome, probably underrated offensive line. I don’t remember whether it was after Bama in the NCG or after Diaco left, but at least a few people here (or at OFD; how long have we been here?) said a BBDB would probably never be enough to get us to championship level (This is a discussion for another time). All that is to say I’m not feeling great about ND’s chances tomorrow. BUT! Despite what happened to them against OSU, Michigan probably isn’t a noticeable amount worse than Clemson on D (their secondary is probably better and the line isn’t too far behind) and we found a way to score. And, with exception to the offensive line, Michigan probably is not super far off Clemson on offense as well. If our defensive line is our best unit, we needed them to play their best game anyway (the answer is probably no, but is there a better starting option than Bonner?). If they can beat the Clemson O-line on a few third downs and get a few big TFLs, I think the LBs and secondary can hang with Clemson’s skill talent. I have all the skepticism (or doomsday cynicism, whatever) of an ND fan who is too young to remember the glory days of Holtz. But every year I’m able to open myself up to heart break. It’s not the same as 2012 when I was 100 percent certain that as soon as Manti smashed into Eddie Lacey at the line for the first time, Bama would wilt (so, so naive). But I’ve still been able to convince myself that they can do this. I’ve had day dreams of catching a few breaks and racing out to a big lead, but more likely it’ll be a slog that comes down to the last drive. Troy Pride makes stupid mistake that results in a Clemson touchdown before redeeming himself with a pick or a strip with only a few minutes left to Book a chance to drive down the field for a game-winning score. Something like that. ND 30 Clem 24 Notredamus predictions: We’ll get one long burst from Dex, but otherwise he’ll pretty much get bottled up, along… Read more »


I believe the issue will be our Oline. They are our one suspect unit. The suspension helps, but will it be enough?


I just dont see Clemson being able to double our average points allowed. They’ll do better than the usual 17 pts, but I dont think they’ll seriously push 30. If ND wins, I’ve got 23-20. If Clemson wins, it’s 26-24. ND will have a massive home field advantage and it’s going to benefit them in a few key situations. Im hoping that will be enough to flip this from a close loss to a straight up win. I could see Yoon winning this with a last second FG


Who’s the down-votin’ troll who infiltrated this thread? Several comments suggesting a win got dinged.


This is the most bizarrely least-favorable line to ND compared to what I would expect it to be that I can remember; usually, lines are skewed in ND’s favor, if anything. If I were a betting man I would 100% take the Irish +12.5 (I’d take the Irish +8.5, even), but I can’t help wonder if the pros in Vegas know something I don’t.