Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence (16) throws a pass in the first half of the NCAA Cotton Bowl semi-final playoff football game against Notre Dame on Saturday, Dec. 29, 2018, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Jeffrey McWhorter)

Jeffrey McWhorter/Associated Press

For the third time in four years, Clemson will play for the College Football Playoff Championship after a 30-3 victory over Notre Dame on Saturday in the 2018 Cotton Bowl. 

In the first-ever playoff matchup featuring two undefeated teams, the Tigers prevailed on the strength of big plays from quarterback Trevor Lawrence and a stifling defense that didn’t skip a beat without star defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence. 

Trevor Lawrence looked comfortable in the spotlight, going 27-of-39 for 327 yards and three touchdowns. Travis Etienne added 109 yards and one touchdown on 14 carries. 

Notre Dame’s offense was held to 248 total yards. Quarterback Ian Book managed just 160 yards and one interception. 

Trevor Lawrence Makes Clemson Most Dangerous Team in CFP

The hype train for Lawrence moved at full speed in high school when Elite 11 coach Trent Dilfer told 105.5 The Roar (h/t Brandon Rink of he had more talent than some NFL quarterbacks:

“The more I’m doing this, the more I think I could throw these guys into an NFL training camp as 18-year-olds. Now they couldn’t handle the volume of offensive-decision-making (in a game), but from a talent standpoint, both Trevor and Justin (Fields) are better than 15 guys in the NFL right now from a talent standpoint. Maybe more.”

After a brief stint behind Kelly Bryant, Lawrence has given Clemson’s offense what it was missing last season following Deshaun Watson’s departure. 

In Watson’s final year, 2016, he completed 67 percent of his passes and averaged 7.9 yards per attempt with a 151.1 rating. Lawrence entered the Cotton Bowl completing 64.8 percent of his passes with 8.0 yards per attempt and a 153.5 rating. 

Once the game got started, Lawrence did things to Notre Dame’s defense that no other quarterback could in 2018:

Lawrence’s timing and accuracy has caused the Clemson offense to soar:

Even when leading the Tigers to the College Football Playoff last year, Bryant was never a dynamic quarterback. He finished 2017 with 13 touchdown passes in 14 games. Lawrence had 13 touchdown passes in his previous seven contests. 

There was never any doubt about Clemson’s defensive skill set. Even with Dexter Lawrence suspended from this game, head coach Dabo Swinney had a wealth of defensive line talent. Clelin Ferrell, Christian Wilkins and cornerback Trayvon Mullen are potential first-round draft picks. 

Based on the way Trevor Lawrence has developed since he took over the starting job early this season—highlighted by picking apart a good Notre Dame defense that only allowed 20 or more points four times during the regular season—Clemson is the nation’s most dangerous team heading into its second title game in three years. 

Strong Recruiting Class Will Keep Irish Among Nation’s CFP Contenders

Even though this wasn’t the ending Notre Dame hoped for, there is a lot for the program to take from this season. 

The biggest reasons for optimism revolve around likely returnees. Quarterback Ian Book showed great promise in his first full season as the starter. He had a higher completion percentage (70.4) than Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins (70.2) and ranked 11th in the nation with 8.8 yards per attempt heading into Saturday. 

No. 2 receiver Chase Claypool is ready to take over the graduating Miles Boykin’s role. 

Losing seniors Dexter Williams and Jerry Tillery will hurt, but head coach Brian Kelly has capitalized on his 2018 success with a terrific incoming recruiting class. 

Per 247Sports, the Irish’s 2019 freshman crop ranks 14th in the nation. That group includes 21 commitments, including 15 rated at least 4 stars, which is more than Oklahoma (14), LSU (13) and Clemson (13).

As Pat Forde of Yahoo Sports pointed out, Kelly and his staff have brought Notre Dame back to elite status without having top-tier recruiting classes:

“A composite Rivals ranking of the past five years of recruiting reveals the following top 10: Alabama, Ohio State, Florida State, Georgia, USC, LSU, a tie between Clemson and Auburn, Notre Dame, and Oklahoma.

If recruiting rankings were gospel, The Irish should be playing in a lesser New Year’s Six bowl this week, not taking on the Tigers in JerryWorld for a chance to play for the national title Jan. 7. And neither Florida State nor USC should be sitting at home with losing records and no bowl bids.”

Teams like Clemson and Alabama are recruiting anomalies. No other program in the country has proved itself capable of matching the year-to-year consistency of that duo. 

As a result, Notre Dame’s ability to always find players who fit Kelly’s system and execute it at a high level explain why the program has won at least 10 games in three of the past four seasons. 

Another strong recruiting class will keep the Irish in the playoff conversation again next year. Their schedule looks difficult on paper—especially an early test on Sept. 21 against Georgia. It won’t be easy to go undefeated again, but it would be a mistake to keep underestimating a program that defied the odds in 2018.  

What’s Next?

Clemson will play the winner of Oklahoma vs. Alabama in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game at Levi’s Stadium on Jan. 7.

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