CLEMSON — Dabo Swinney was doing a live interview on ESPN Sunday afternoon when he grabbed a cowboy hat, plopped it on his head and proceeded to tell all the things he is excited about ahead of his Clemson team's matchup with Notre Dame on Dec. 29 in a College Football Playoff semifinal in Dallas.
The list goes on.
For weeks, the matchup between No. 2 Clemson and No. 3 Notre Dame has been the projected semifinal most thought the Tigers would draw, but now that it is official, the buzz has officially kicked in and Swinney was ecstatic Sunday.
Here's a guide with everything one needs to know about the Cotton Bowl showdown that will determine which team plays for the national championship:
Reporters from 45 different newspapers and a record crowd of 54,189 fans arrived at Death Valley on Nov. 12, 1977, to watch the Tigers and Irish play each other for the first time. The quarterbacks were Notre Dame's Joe Montana and Clemson's Steve Fuller. Clemson led 17-7 heading into the fourth quarter before Montana took over and was the architect behind another one of his classic late-game comebacks. The final score: Notre Dame: 21, Clemson 17.
But something else happened that day, too. According to former Clemson sports information director Tim Bourret, in the crowd as a recruit that afternoon was Clemson legend Jeff Davis, who was so impressed by the atmosphere that it officially sealed his decision to attend Clemson. He later won a national championship in 1981 as a captain for the Tigers, and his twin sons J.D. and Judah Davis are seniors on the Clemson team now with championship rings of their own.
Two years later, in 1979, Clemson turned the tide and beat Notre Dame on the road the same way the Fighting Irish beat Clemson previously, turning a 10-point deficit into a 16-10 victory.
The teams didn't meet again for 36 years, but it was a game worth waiting for when they finally did. In a prime-time matchup played in monsoon-like conditions at Death Valley, Clemson took a big lead and then held off a furious fourth-quarter rally by the Irish to win, 24-22, in October, 2015.
"An unbelievable game," Swinney said. "I'll never forget that game."
Notre Dame strengths
- Like Clemson, Notre Dame made a midseason quarterback switch this season and it made all the difference. Ian Book has the keys to this offense, and like Clemson freshman Trevor Lawrence, the junior is known for his arm. Whereas Lawrence averages 207.3 yards per game through the air, Book averages 224.4 and has thrown for 2,468 yards with 19 touchdowns. Having earned the starting role in mid-September, Book is settled, acclimated and comfortable. Additionally, the Fighting Irish still have the quarterback whom Book replaced, Brandon Wimbush. Wimbush is still at Notre Dame to help in a pinch. Kelly Bryant, Lawrence's predecessor, is not.
- In terms of a rushing attack, the Fighting Irish have Dexter Williams, who is approaching 1,000 yards for the season despite only playing in eight games. He has 941 rushing yards and averages 117.6 per game.
- Last but not least, Notre Dame has the nation's No. 21 defense. The Irish are ninth in scoring defense.
Notre Dame weaknesses
College Football Playoff teams don’t tend to have many weaknesses, but there are two areas where the Irish have looked vulnerable: its defense has struggled on third down, and the offense has just one running threat.
- Clemson has had its share of issues on third down this season, but Notre Dame’s third-down defense has some holes despite the entire body of work being pretty stout all year. The Fighting Irish's defense ranks No. 58 on third-down conversions.
- When it comes to Notre Dame’s No. 49 rushing offense, there isn't much behind Williams. No other running back comes close to his production. And Clemson has the nation's No. 3 rushing defense.
There are four games coaches will be able to look to when it comes to common opponents this season: Wake Forest, Pittsburgh, Florida State and Syracuse.
In those games:
- Clemson beat Wake Forest 63-3, Notre Dame beat the Demon Deacons 56-27.
- Clemson beat Pittsburgh 42-10, Notre Dame squeaked past the Panthers 19-14.
- Clemson beat Florida State 59-10, Notre Dame beat the Seminoles 42-13.
- Clemson survived Syracuse, 27-23, after Lawrence missed the second half with an injury. Notre Dame beat the Orange, 36-3, after Syracuse quarterback Eric Dungey was injured in the first quarter.