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ACC Set for Showcase Championship

By Dave Holcomb
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Dave Holcomb previews the rematch between Clemson and Notre Dame.

The ACC championship hasn’t been much of a contest in recent years. Since 2015, the game has usually consisted of the Clemson Tigers and the Coastal division champion by default. The last two years, that division winner hasn’t even been ranked in the Top 20.

That’s not the case this year.

With its inclusion in the ACC this season, Notre Dame will be battling for its first conference championship in program history. Meanwhile, Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence will be attempting to avoid something he’s never done — losing to an ACC opponent.

Notre Dame won the first meeting against Clemson in November, and the conversation this week has centered around how Lawrence didn’t play in that game. On the surface, the return of the presumed No. 1 pick in next year’s NFL draft is a huge boost for Clemson, who just barely lost to the Irish in double overtime.

But Lawrence’s absence cannot be considered the top reason Clemson lost that game. His replacement, DJ Uiagalelei, dazzled with 439 passing yards on 44 attempts. He also accounted for two passing touchdowns and another score on the ground while not throwing an interception all while the Clemson rushing attack mustered only 34 yards.

Did Notre Dame stack the box to stop Travis Etienne and dare Uiagalelei, a true freshman making his first road start at the time, to beat them. Perhaps that was part of what happened, but the Irish also finished sixth in the country (among teams with more than five games played) this season in run defense, allowing under 100 yards on the ground per game.

To avenge their loss, the Tigers need Lawrence to be just as spectacular as Uiagalelei and hope that Lawrence’s return loosens up the Irish run defense just a little.

But contrary to the national narrative, Lawrence might not be the biggest boost Clemson will receive from a returning player. The Tigers were missing five players (at least for a half) along their defensive line and at linebacker in the first matchup with the Irish. Those absences included defensive leader James Skalski.

The senior linebacker has dealt with a groin injury for a good portion of 2020 and suffered a setback in Clemson’s last game against Virginia Tech on Dec. 5. He played just five snaps in that matchup.

If Skalski can’t play, Clemson will be down to third-string linebacker, sophomore Kane Patterson. Skalski’s immediate backup, Jake Venables, is out for the season with a broken arm he suffered against the Hokies.

So while the Tigers are healthier for this weekend’s matchup, whether Skalski can play a significant amount of snaps will likely still prove pivotal this Saturday.

For the Irish, they are likely tired of hearing about who will or won’t play on the other sideline. They are the team entering this weekend undefeated. Some media pundits believe that as long as the Irish don’t suffer a blow out loss against the Tigers that they are already in the CFP.

But questions for Notre Dame should persist. The Irish needed double overtime at home to beat the Tigers despite out-rushing them 208-34 and winning the turnover margin 3-1. Notre Dame scored 10 points off those turnovers, including a defensive touchdown.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Notre Dame will outrush Clemson again, but by how much? It’s also very unlikely that the Irish post a plus-2 in the turnover margin again, especially if they don’t intercept a pass. Clemson finished plus-10 in the turnover margin in 2020, which was second best in the ACC. Notre Dame was the only opponent to force Clemson to be a minus-2 in any game this season.

These questions will be answered Saturday in what should be the game of the weekend. At the very least, the ACC Championship will have the biggest impact on the College Football Playoffs.

After years of the ACC title game being an afterthought, that’s so refreshing.

Prediction: Clemson 31, Notre Dame 28