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Hot Read: Clemson wins ACC, Playoff Bound Again

By Dave Holcomb
SouthernPigskin.com
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Dave Holcomb recaps Clemson's 35-10 victory over Notre Dame in the ACC Championship Game.

It may be 2020 -- the weirdest college football season of recent memory -- but things in the ACC remain largely the same.

For the sixth straight year, the Clemson Tigers have won the ACC Championship. And similar to recent conference title bouts for the Tigers, Clemson cruised to the victory Saturday night -- this time versus Notre Dame.

The Irish had opportunities in the first quarter to build an early lead, but Notre Dame mustered only a field goal prior to Clemson’s first touchdown. Then the Tigers pretty much dominated in the final three quarters.

Here are five takeaways from the latest Clemson championship:

Tigers Run Game Avenges Lackluster November Performance

Notre Dame essentially held Clemson to just 1.0 yard per carry in the November matchup. On Saturday, the Tigers ground game was at its boastful best, averaging more than 8.0 yards per rush.

Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne both had runs of more than 30 yards. Etienne reeled off 124 yards with only 10 carries while Lawrence posted 90 yards on the ground with 14 attempts.

Since returning from his COVID-19 absence, Lawrence is posting 9.7 yards per pass attempt. With the Clemson running game looking extremely efficient now too, the Tigers are going to be a very difficult “out” in the College Football Playoffs.

Notre Dame Wins Turnover Margin but Falls Short on Third Downs

Takeaways and third-down efficiency was a big part of the Notre Dame victory over Clemson in November. The Fighting Irish actually won the turnover margin Saturday it led to zero points. Furthermore, third downs were just a flat out disaster.

Notre Dame started 2-for-2 on third down but then went 1-for-10 the rest of the way. Including one fourth-down try, the Fighting Irish offense was 3-for-13 on third and fourth downs. Conversely, Clemson went 9-for-15 on third and fourth downs.

The biggest miss of the day for Notre Dame on those key downs was early in the second quarter. On fourth-and-3 at the Clemson 28-yard line, Ian Book found a wide open Avery Davis but the ball, which was thrown a little bit behind the intended receiver, bounced off his hands. The Tigers scored touchdowns before that Irish drive and on their possession following the drop, which gave Clemson a double-digit lead early in the second quarter.

Clemson Shuts Down Ian Book’s Dual-Threat Ability

In November, Book rushed for 67 yards, which helped the Irish move the chains on pivotal plays. There was no such thing in the ACC Championship.

Clemson pressured Book all evening, which was a big reason why the Fighting Irish performed so poorly on third downs. The Tigers sacked Book six times, which led to minus-35 rushing yards for the Notre Dame signal caller.

As a result of that huge negative number, the Fighting Irish had just 44 rushing yards and 1.5 yards per carry. Even Notre Dame fans, who were watching their team play in its first ever conference championship, know that’s not enough to win a title.

Tigers Solidify at least a Top Two Seed in CFP

Entering the weekend, the College Football Playoff field was Alabama and everybody else. But after Clemson avenged its only loss of the season with a dominating performance -- their most complete one of 2020 -- the Tigers, once again, appear to be the biggest threat to the Crimson Tide. Depending on what happens in the SEC Championship, Clemson is even still in play for the playoff tournament’s top seed.

But regardless of seeding, Clemson’s dominating win guarantees it won’t see Alabama until the national title. That increases the Tigers’ chances of returning to the national championship for a third straight season. Assuming Lawrence stays healthy (and virus free), he would become the first quarterback to ever start three straight National Championships.

That’s getting a little ahead of ourselves. For now, the Tigers have a record-setting six straight ACC Championships -- three of which Lawrence has won.

Notre Dame Underperforms in Another Big Game

It’s a little unfair to argue the Fighting Irish are the same, old, sorry Notre Dame. In the crazy 2020 season, the Fighting Irish may very well still make the College Football Playoffs, and regardless of what happens for Notre Dame to end 2020, they are still the first team to beat Clemson in the regular season in three years.

Still, until Brian Kelly wins when it matters most -- in championship contests -- his program is going to have to deal with the label of not showing up for big games. Losing by 24 on Saturday does not help change that narrative.

Now, Kelly and the Irish will have to wait about 16 hours to find out if their regular season was enough for them to remain in the Top 4.