CLEMSON — It was going to be a late night and early morning for the College Football Playoff committee Sunday, tasked with coming to terms regarding who deserved the No. 4 slot in the Playoff later this month and who was going to be left out, right on the bubble. But as Clemson football players and coaches went to sleep into the wee hours of Sunday morning, they rested their heads knowing they had nothing to worry about and would be just fine thanks to a 42-10 ACC Championship win against Pittsburgh and a sterling 13-0 record.
The Tigers, as expected, are the No. 2 seed behind Alabama for the College Football Playoff and will play No. 3 Notre Dame on Dec. 29 in Arlington, Texas, in the Cotton Bowl — news they learned while having a casual pizza party at the football facility Sunday afternoon. Kickoff is set for 4 p.m.
"I'm super excited to come to the Cotton Bowl. I've been in college football for a long time, and I've never had the opportunity to experience the Cotton Bowl but know a lot of people who had and said what a great experience it is," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "To play one of the undefeateds in Notre Dame, one of the best programs in college football history, it's a special opportunity. And I know it will be a great week for both teams, an incredible challenge, but I know one that both teams will be excited about. I don't have any doubt it will be an unbelievable game."
Clemson is no stranger to Notre Dame, having met the Fighting Irish as recently as 2015 in a game the Tigers won 24-22 after then-South Carolina governor Nikki Haley urged fans to stay home because of hurricane/monsoon-like conditions. More than 82,000 fans still showed up, though, and Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said he was particularly impressed with Clemson's game-day scene and the crowd noise level.
But this is a new year, and these are two different teams competing on neutral turf now with their seasons on the line. Christian Wilkins and Co. were freshmen that year. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence was 16 years old. That game is pushed to the side now other than perhaps a little bit of relevant film study.
Swinney and Kelly, who have a great deal of respect for one another and were even jovially conversing back and forth about recruiting and seeing each other again toward the end of a Sunday teleconference, can each relate to one another in that both made very public quarterback switches in September. It worked out flawlessly for both.
The Fighting Irish replaced Brandon Wimbush with Ian Book. Clemson replaced Kelly Bryant, who has since left the program, with Trevor Lawrence.
"We were looking at the long term. We were looking at how many plays our defense was on the field. We were looking at November. So, absolutely, there was the vision of, 'How can we get to the College Football Playoff?'" Kelly said. "All of those had to be part of the decision-making process. It couldn't be, 'How could we just score more points?' It was, 'How could we find ourselves as a better football team in November?' Those aren't decisions that are made by the quarterback coach; those come to the head coach — and they're difficult decisions because they affect people. That was hard on Brandon Wimbush, and it was difficult because I love him. But it was the right decision to make."
Notre Dame got into the playoff mix at No. 3 thanks to an undefeated regular season that was enough to impress the committee despite the Fighting Irish having no conference affiliation.
The Fighting Irish have wins over Michigan, Stanford, Northwestern, Syracuse and Southern California, and there is quite a bit of valuable tape the two staffs can use to study one another considering Clemson and Notre Dame have four common opponents. They both played — and beat — Wake Forest, Pittsburgh, Florida State and Syracuse.
Moving forward, Clemson returns home this week for some time off for players as they take exams and recover from Saturday's game, while the coaching staff hits the recruiting trail for as many as nine days starting Sunday. They will do so with another College Football Playoff berth to boast and another ACC championship trophy to show.
Then, it will be time to hit the ground running with bowl prep as Swinney's most experienced team looks to make another run at another national championship.
"There are a lot of distractions. There are a lot of things that come with being a part of this, a lot of things that you have to manage that aren't in kind of a normal game," Swinney said. "But, at the end of the day in championship football, you're playing teams where there's just such small margin for error - it's a few plays. It just comes down to a few plays that make the difference. You've got to have unbelievable precision with that."