Time, time, time
See what’s become of me
While I look around for my possibilities
Simon & Garfunkel couldn’t possibly have known anything about the College Football Playoff in 1968 when they penned those lyrics for “A Hazy Shade of Winter” on their “Bookends” album.
Yet those words define a big part of the challenge this week for University of Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly and his Clemson counterpart, Dabo Swinney.
By Saturday, “time” for the Irish will equate to five weeks since they walked off the Los Angeles Coliseum turf, finished with their 12-0 regular season.
For Clemson, it’s been four weeks since the Tigers left Charlotte after dispatching Pittsburgh in the Atlantic Coast Conference title game.
Since then it’s been rest, recovery, exams, Christmas and a little bit of everything else for the two teams.
Time, time, time — indeed.
And that’s the conundrum for both Notre Dame and Clemson. They don’t know exactly what they’ll get Saturday at AT&T Stadium.
These are two unbeaten teams. So they can stand pat and play to their strengths — or not. They can use the extra time to add some new wrinkles, knowing the challenge ahead — or not.
Kelly has made it clear to his players that this game will require their top effort. So, whenever a particular player or position group produced its top 2018 performance, Kelly has suggested that level of play — or better — will be needed against a Clemson team that joins Alabama in terms of comfort level in the CFP event.
Will the Irish team that shows up Saturday be the Notre Dame team that bludgeoned 12th-ranked Syracuse at Yankee Stadium in mid-November?
Will Clemson be the same Tiger team that struggled at home in September to get past that same Orange squad on a come-from-behind touchdown in the final minute of play?
That will be part of the reality show that plays out live at the Cotton Bowl.
There may be no more interesting matchup than that of the Notre Dame offensive line versus Clemson’s defensive front.
“Clemson has a big athletic front,” says Irish center and captain Sam Mustipher. “They’ve shown that on film, the ability to move, get off blocks and make a lot of plays. It’s going to be a challenge for us, and we understand that. It’s just going back to the fundamentals and basics.
“We have a standard of Notre Dame offensive line play. It’s been here long before I got here, long before those guys who moved on last year got here. And we take pride in what we do. And we understand guys on Saturdays who’ve played here before are watching us. And we go out there every weekend and give it the best we have.”
Adds Kelly, “They are who they are. There’s no denying that this is one of the top, if not the best, defensive line I can remember facing. Maybe Alabama in 2012. There’s some similarities to the 2017 North Carolina State front. But this is as good as it gets.
“Versatility, explosiveness, edge presence — the ball has got to come out quickly. You can’t stand back there and hold it. You’ve got to move the launch point. You have to find a way to keep them off-balance in the run game. But you’re not going to run it down their throat. You’re not going to bludgeon them up front. But you have to keep them off-balance. So it will be a challenge.
“But I think what’s happened this year with our offensive line is that they work well together. They now know each other, they know how to work with each other and they play off each other pretty well.”
While Clemson’s defense (ranked fourth overall) has earned the majority of the headlines in matchup assessments, the Notre Dame defense, too, has played a big role in 2018.
“I think it starts up front with our defensive line and their ability to get pressure on the quarterback,” says Irish linebacker and captain Drue Tranquill. “And then just playing sound in the back end.
“But I’ve got to give the kudos to the D-line. We’re deep there, and they’ve been able to get pressure on the quarterback all year. We’re good all across the board, and they’ve done a great job getting pressure up front. And we’ve held up in the back end with a lot of good talent and execution.”
Both Mustipher and Tranquill echoed their thoughts on what occurred to make them think this had the potential to be a memorable year.
“I think what makes this team special is that we just took it one day and one practice at a time and we took it one game at a time,” says Mustipher. “So we really didn’t look too far ahead. We understand that, if we go out there and we do what we need to do on Saturdays, it was going to be an opportunity for us.”
“For me, I made the decision to come back last December,” adds Tranquill. “I knew we had the pieces. It was just a matter of execution at that point. And so when we got into fall camp and I saw the way our defense was executing, we weren’t really playing as individuals — we were playing cohesively together. I knew we had a special thing going there defensively.
“And then watching our defense just get after it against Michigan.
“And then just transitioning quarterbacks like it was nothing. And the special teams units over there.
“So, defensively, in fall camp, I was like, ‘We got this thing.’ And then, offensively, they’ve just continued to prove themselves and be great each and every week.”
Both these teams, interestingly, changed starting quarterbacks early in the year. Notre Dame’s Ian Book became the first-teamer four games in. Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, a freshman, made his first start in week five.
Says Kelly, “We felt like the offense was coming to us, but there was a lot of work that needed to be done in terms of playing a complete game both offensively, defensively and special teams.
“Even though we had won our first three games, one of the games we played defensively over 90 snaps (97 plays by Ball State). So there was a lot of work going into it. As we evaluated moving forward, we felt like Ian (Book) would give us the best shot at winning each and every week that we played and doing it with more efficiency.
“It was a matter of looking at it from much more of an overall perspective of how it would affect our entire team, not just the offense because Brandon (Wimbush) won a lot of games as a starter. So it wasn’t about just winning games on offense, it was for the entire football team.
“I think where Ian has grown is just game situations, settling into the game, making game adjustments, getting a feel for the game, all the things that you would expect with somebody that was a first-year starter. He’s gained that game-like experience where you can make some adjustments. And he picks up on it and is able to execute. I think that’s where we’ve seen the growth.”
Kelly also understands that games like this can be program-defining at the highest level.
“We’ve got to go out and win in these big games because we’re still being compared to what happened in 2012, fair or unfair,” he says. “We need to set a new kind of parameter there.
“As a staff, we’ve just talked about making sure we get an opportunity to prepare them for the moment. This is much larger than a traditional game. The preparation obviously is important and and then there’s the game itself. It’s a big atmosphere. There’s a lot going on prior to the game — a lot of media and buzz. So it’s just making sure that our guys are in the right place going into the game.”
But Kelly understands it mostly comes down to making (at least) one more play than a hugely talented Clemson unit.
“The running back, Travis Etienne, is as good a running back as we’ve seen since we played Georgia last year, that kind of talent. The quarterback, Trevor Lawrence, is really good. He’s got great arm talent, he’s tall and can see the field. I think the receiving corps is on par with the USC receiving corps. That’s a pretty dynamic offensive set.
“Defensively, you obviously start with the defensive front. You probably have three guys there that could be top 50, top 60 players in all of college football. So that’s a pretty good group.
“I compare them to maybe North Carolina State last year in some fashion, maybe LSU, that kind of capability on the defensive line. It’s a really, really formidable group.
“It’s a really talented football team, but more than anything else, it’s a team that’s been there four times. They know how to win. They’ve been there before. They play with a lot of confidence.”
Kelly also understands that his current players have no CFP experience — and nothing can change that.
“I don’t know that there’s really any magic bullet that you have to get that, other than we have an experienced football team,” he says. “There are a lot of veterans that have played, logged a lot of miles, played in some big games. But we’re not going to be able to duplicate four playoff games.
“What I think we’ve been really good at is staying in the moment and treating each game as it has come. And we’ll do the same thing here.
“Our strength is going to be in being who we are. If we try to be somebody else, that’s not going to work very well for us. So our strength will be being consistent like we have been all year.”
Hang on to your hopes, my friend
That’s an easy thing to say
But if your hopes should pass away
Simply pretend that you can build them again
— Simon & Garfunkel from “A Hazy Shade of Winter”
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.