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Swinney lobbying for Tigers, Irish in CFP ahead of ACC Championship rematch

| Friday, December 18, 2020

Dabo Swinney saw this one coming back on Nov. 3. Back then he was asked not just about the upcoming game against Notre Dame, but the odds of a rematch in the ACC Championship.

“I mean, we’re both top-five teams, so I would say it would be very likely,” was Swinney’s opinion. But he didn’t stop there. He had other prophecies which have since rung true.

“This is going to be a heck of a game and whoever wins it, you don’t get to punch your ticket [to the postseason]. … No matter what happens in this game, if you win it, you got more games to play,” Swinney said four days before falling to Notre Dame 47-40 in South Bend. “And if you get beat, doesn’t mean you’re out. Just go back to work.”

Both teams have maintained top-five status — Notre Dame at No. 2 and Clemson at No. 3 — by putting in the work since that double-overtime thriller on Nov. 7.

The Irish (10-0, 9-0 ACC) have taken care of Boston College, No. 15 North Carolina — with an impressive defensive showing, holding the Tar Heels to season lows of 17 points, 298 total yards and just 87 on the ground — and, most recently, Syracuse on Senior Day. The Tigers (9-1, 8-1 ACC), meanwhile, trounced Pitt and Virginia Tech by 35 points apiece.

Courtesy of Notre Dame Athletics
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney shows his frustration during Notre Dame’s 47-40 double overtime win over the then-No. 1 Tigers on Nov. 7 at Notre Dame Stadium. It was Swinney’s first ever trip to South Bend, as a coach or otherwise.

Now, Clemson finds itself in unfamiliar territory: seeking revenge against the only team to beat them in their last 39 regular season games, a Notre Dame team that ended their 27-game win streak against ACC competition because the Irish are one-year conference members. That reality also has Swinney in the unusual position of bringing politicking for his team’s Playoff chances in the event of another loss to the Irish.

“We feel like we’re definitely one of the best four teams in the country and there’s nothing that’s going to happen in that game … for Clemson or Notre Dame that’s gonna change that in my opinion. And that’s based on data,” Swinney said.

“It’s almost like, you know, you have to have 120 hours to get a business degree, but yet these people over here only need 60 hours to get a business degree,” Swinney added, during an appearance on the Rich Eisen Show last week, in a not-so-veiled shot at a 5-0, No. 4-ranked Ohio State team that is heavily favored in the Big Ten Championship.

That’s what the No. 2-ranked Irish — who Swinney also believes are one of the top-four teams nationally — did to the perennial powerhouse Tigers. They’ve backed Clemson into a corner, and Swinney’s looking to hedge his bets in the event they may be a two-loss team seeking the first ever CFP berth for a squad with more than one loss.

Of course, that can all be remedied in a game where the winner earns a de facto College Football Playoff bid. Swinney recognizes, though, that there are several flaws from Nov. 7 that need to be shored up come Saturday.

“There’s just a lot of things that we got to do better to have a chance to beat a great team like Notre Dame,” Swinney said. “We got our butts kicked [in the trenches] in the first game. Just that simple. … Hopefully, we can do a better job of not giving up some of the big plays. … I hope we play better, we fit the run better. I hope we don’t let [sophomore running back Kyren Williams] run the stretch for 65 yards on the first play.”

Courtesy of Notre Dame Athletics
Irish sophomore running back Kyren Williams jukes a defender before breaking a 65-yard touchdown run on the first official play from scrimmage during Notre Dame’s 47-40 double-overtime win over then-No. 1 Clemson on Nov. 7. Williams had 140 yards and three scores on the ground against the Tigers.

Swinney’s perspective seems to be that the Tigers are hitting the reset button from that previous game against the Irish.

“It’s a new game whether you won the last one or lost the last one,” he said. “You don’t get to carry over any touchdowns or sacks or good plays or mistakes. It’s a new game. It’s two great teams and the same things are going to decide the game.”

That’s an accurate mindset given the Tigers will be reintroducing four key pieces to the rotation against the Irish: sophomore defensive tackle Tyler Davis, redshirt-sophomore and graduate student linebackers Mike Jones Jr. and James Skalski and, of course, starting junior quarterback Trevor Lawrence. Those first three names will be facing an Irish offensive front dealing with two injuries at center, one of which has taken starting junior Jarrett Patterson out of the rotation for the season.

On the offensive side of the ball, Lawrence was relegated to the sidelines in the previous matchup with the Irish because of COVID-19 protocols, but Swinney said he still played a key role in the game.

“I thought he was just a calming influence on the sideline for [freshman quarterback] D.J. [Uiagelelei] and just an encouraging voice,” Swinney said. “He’s an inspirational guy, so it was great to have him there.”

As for where Notre Dame stands at the quarterback position, Swinney had high praise for the Irish’s man under center.

“[Graduate student] Ian [Book] does an awesome job of managing the pocket and stepping up when he needs to and slipping out and extending plays and then running,” he said. “I hate to compare him to Joe Montana, but he has a little but of magic to him and he is a great player. He’s the heart and soul. He makes them go.”

In many ways the first Clemson game was a breakout performance for Book, and he has sustained that level of play to become a finalist for the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award. Now he’ll be pitting that skillset against the “face of college football” in Lawrence. Swinney is looking forward to the rematch.

“We want to crown a worthy champion,” he said. “It’s going to be an awesome game.”

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About Hayden Adams

Hayden is the former sports editor of The Observer. When he's not working toward his four majors (physics and film, television & theatre) and three minors (journalism, ethics & democracy), you can probably find him hopelessly trying to save his beloved Zahm House from being wiped out. He plans to attend law school at a TBD location after graduation.

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