5 Things To Watch

CFP Semifinal: Five Things To Watch

It’s the College Football Playoff semifinals.

Serious business, apparently.

So the preliminary rounds don’t count for much any longer now that both Notre Dame and Clemson have arrived unbeaten.

How the two teams compared against four common opponents is interesting fodder for fans — but some of those games were three months ago. Each current starting quarterback made his first 2018 start versus one of those common opponents (Notre Dame’s Ian Book against Wake Forest, Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence against Syracuse).

So here’s what to consider in advance of the Irish matchup with the champion of the Atlantic Coast Conference:

The quarterbacks. They’ve both said all the right things, yet this is the grandest stage on which Notre Dame’s Book and Clemson’s Lawrence have played football. Will either of them show any nerves at AT&T Stadium? Or will they take the moment in stride and play the sort of game that helped get their teams where they are?

Underdog mentality. The subject has been on simmer (if that) on the back burner. Yet the exposure level of this football game means it has been impossible to miss for Irish players. Not many people (media, experts or other observers) have suggested Notre Dame will win this game. A close result, maybe? But outright Irish win predictions have been few and far between. How much have the Irish noticed? How will they react to that on Saturday? Will it make a difference?

It’s a budding rivalry. These teams have minimal history with each other (three previous meetings). But that changes between Saturday and three regular-season matchups (the next two in South Bend in 2020 and 2022) in the next five seasons. This could quickly develop into one of the great intersectional rivalries in college football, especially if these two teams keep playing at their current levels.

The Irish run game. There’s no position group in the game that has been more ballyhooed than the Clemson defensive line. That’s because of all-stars Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell and Dexter Lawrence — though the latter will not play Saturday after testing positive for a banned substance. Now it’s up to captain and center Sam Mustipher and his Irish offensive line mates to prove they can protect Book — and allow Notre Dame running backs led by Dexter Williams to make their own marks.  

There’s history here. Notre Dame has played at 16 different postseason sites, but nowhere do the Irish possess a glossier resume than at the Cotton Bowl. Victories over top-rated Texas teams in 1970 and 1977. Wins against top-seven-ranked Texas A&M teams in 1992 and 1993. And that doesn’t include Joe Montana’s final college game to finish the 1978 campaign when (after Notre Dame trailed 34-12 in a Dallas ice storm) he threw a TD pass as time expired to enable a 35-34 Irish win. So, shouldn’t there be some Notre Dame karma somewhere here in Dallas?                                                                                 

John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame. He is the author, co-author or editor of 12 books (one a New York Times bestseller) and editor of the award-winning “Strong of Heart” series.