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Thomas: 10.5-point underdogs? Here’s what’s changed since ND faced Clemson in November

| Friday, December 18, 2020

I could start this column with something dramatic like…

“On November 7, the undefeated Clemson Tigers entered Notre Dame Stadium as heavy favorites… but you all know what happened next.” 

Or something like this:

“Notre Dame proved many experts wrong when they won ‘the big one’ against Clemson back in November, but with Trevor Lawrence and multiple defensive starters out, many question the legitimacy of the Irish victory.”  

Or maybe this? 

“Notre Dame thought they had cleared their name as big-game chokers by beating Clemson in overtime five weeks ago, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that their doubters have simply multiplied ahead of their rematch with the Tigers in the 2020 ACC Championship.”

Whether I thought all these intros were too cheesy, or simply whether I couldn’t pick between which one to use and so found a subtle way to incorporate all of them into my column, that’s a secret between me, myself and I — a Notre Dame diehard battling realism til I die.

Speaking of battling realism, I’ve been forced to confront Notre Dame’s upcoming game once more. Notre Dame did the unthinkable deed of beating Clemson once, but now they’re being asked to do it a second time. The Irish enter this game as 10.5-point underdogs as of Thursday, and the question has to be asked: after winning by seven as 6.5-point underdogs their last time out, what factors are at play in this game that weren’t there in December. And to be quite frank, how do these factors contribute to a 17.5-point swing, from a Notre Dame seven-point win to Clemson’s predicted 10.5-point margin of victory on Saturday?

The general rule of thumb is that home-field advantage is worth three points, and so I’ll take away three points and make it a 14.5-point swing, given that Saturday’s game will be played on a neutral field. 

So, as I am in fact a college student and have no money, I elected to expend my degenerate gambling impulse on looking at this particular betting line, and identifying the factors that will make a conference title more difficult than beating Clemson in November. 

Trevor Lawrence in the run game

I could have stopped after “Trevor Lawrence,” as the projected No. 1 NFL Draft selection in 2021 is enough of an X-Factor. More specifically though, I’m worried about what Lawrence does in the running game. Clemson has shown more of a willingness to use Lawrence’s legs in big situations; he had a big touchdown run against Ohio State in last year’s CFP semifinals, and he ran for a season-high 41 yards and two touchdowns in their regular season finale against Virginia Tech, a game that was a must-win to secure a berth in the ACC Championship.

Notre Dame will have to respect Lawrence’s ability to run the ball, as well as his potent arm, which will impact the Irish in two ways. For one, it will be difficult for their front seven to key in on Travis Etienne as much as they did in November. Holding Etienne to 28 rushing yards forced Clemson to be one-dimensional, but can they repeat the trick in Charlotte while simultaneously respecting Lawrence’s rushing ability?

And secondly, can Notre Dame linebackers be as impactful in clogging passing lanes, while keeping an eye on Lawrence? Recent history suggests they can, as Notre Dame did exactly that against Sam Howell of UNC, but Lawrence is a better quarterback, and Clemson torched Notre Dame’s secondary in November. The linebackers can help clog up passing lanes, but they also have to be ready to deliver some big-time hits if Lawrence leaves the pocket. 

Estimated Betting Line Impact: 4.5 points

Courtesy of Notre Dame Athletics

Clemson freshman quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei prepares to take the snap while sophomore safety Kyle Hamilton, left, and junior buck linebacker Shayne Simon spy him during Notre Dame’s 47-40 double-overtime victory over the Tigers on Nov. 7 at Notre Dame Stadium. Uiagelelei threw for 439 yards —the most ever by an Irish opponent — in replacement duties for Trevor Lawrence, who was not yet able to return after testing positive for COVID-19.

James Skalski (and Clemson’s healthier defense) 

Clemson returns three high-impact starters to their defense that were missing in November, headlined by middle linebacker James Skalski. Skalski has a tremendous impact on this Clemson defense, and that impact was clearly seen last season in the national championship. LSU running back Clyde Edwards-Hillaire gained 76 of his 110 rushing yards after Skalski was ejected for targeting, as well as nearly 30 of his 54 receiving yards. 

When Clemson visited Notre Dame, Irish redshirt freshman running back Kyren Williams gashed the Tigers’ defense for 140 yards and 3 touchdowns — rumbling for 65 yards and a touchdown on his first touch of the game. Skalski’s presence changes a little bit of what Notre Dame can do. Although, if Notre Dame’s offense can keep humming, the mobility of quarterback Ian Book should at least keep Skalski from completely cheating on Williams, particularly given Williams’ proficiency as a pass-blocker, which allows for Notre Dame to operate effectively out of the play-action. 

Estimated Betting Line Impact: 2.0 points

Notre Dame’s Offensive Line

Notre Dame is a little less healthy on the offensive line, with junior center Jarrett Patterson out for the season with a foot injury. sophomore Zeke Correll has taken over Patterson’s duties, but Notre Dame turned the ball over on a fumbled snap against Syracuse with senior Josh Lugg filling the position while Correll recovered from a high-ankle sprain, a rare mistake that may have been attributed to the change in personnel. The Irish offense has not seemed to struggle with running the ball, put pass protection against Clemson’s healthier defensive front will be an X-Factor all night. If Clemson can generate pressure without sending extra blitzers, it could make for a long night for Book. 

Estimated Betting Line Impact: 3.0 points

Dabo and Clemson coming off a bye

Technically, Notre Dame is coming off a bye as well, but Clemson is one of the best in the business at utilizing open dates. Under Dabo Swinney, they are 13-2 when coming off a bye week, and that includes a seven-game winning streak. Their last loss in this situation came in 2014, before Clemson won their first national championship of the decade. Clemson has some of the best coaches and coordinators in the country, and the extra prep time could be a weapon for them. 

Meanwhile, Notre Dame has a somewhat justified reputation of coming out of the gate slow after bye weeks. And it only takes going back to their last loss on the gridiron — a 45-14 pummeling against Michigan — to find when Notre Dame last lost after a bye week. The Irish cannot afford a slow-start; they needed every bit of a 13-point halftime advantage last time they played to stave off Clemson, and a slow start could doom them this time around. 

Estimated Betting Line Impact: 4.0 points 

History

OK this is a small one, but consider this: in the three occasions that two teams have met twice as top-5 opponents in AP Poll history, the second game was won by the loser of the first game all three times, with each game decided by at least 21 points. It’s a disturbing fact to hear as an Irish fan and one that at least deserves acknowledgement. It is really hard to beat a good team twice in a season. 

Estimated Betting Line Impact: 1.0 points 

I won’t mention the factors that may help Notre Dame — such as their much-improved red zone offense, Ian Book’s improved play, the emergence of Javon McKinley and Ben Skowronek as true receiving threats and the return of Braden Lenzy. We all know the media doesn’t want to recognize that Notre Dame belongs on that field. 

But there you have it. 14.5 points of the betting line swing. Now that I’ve done that, go hammer the Irish +10.5… but please don’t come after me if they don’t cover… like I said, I have no money and this is amateur betting advice at its finest.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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