Is it too early to begin drawing parallels between this year’s Notre Dame team and the 2012 Irish squad that went undefeated and made it all the way to the national championship game?
In just four games of action, the Irish have displayed the kind of attributes you look for in a potential national title contender.
The offense has been consistently potent, averaging 41 points and 531 yards per game. The unit’s 7.59 yards per play average currently ranks sixth overall in the nation.
Though the defense as a whole hasn’t been as dominant as the Manti Te’o-led defense of 2012, the team’s top three defenders—LB Jaylon Smith, DL Sheldon Day and CB KeiVarae Russell—have all looked like the difference-making impact players they were projected to be.
The team’s early-season resume is one that already includes a blowout victory over a high-profile opponent (38-3 win over Texas in Week 1), a gut-check close-call scary survival last-minute win on the road (34-27 victory at Virginia) and a statement showing against a top-15 team (30-22 win over a then No. 14-ranked Georgia Tech squad).
Overall, it’s a group that talent-wise looks like it could be on par with that 2012 team, and potentially (if the defense continues to gel and QB DeShone Kizer continues to grow in the starting role he’s been thrust into) could end up being even stronger.
If Brian Kelly’s squad wants to prove that it is indeed a legitimate national title contender, a win in Saturday’s showdown against No. 12 Clemson in a hostile Death Valley environment is a good way to really get that proverbial ball rolling with some serious momentum.
When Notre Dame announced its “arrangement” with the ACC back in 2013, this game is the kind of big-time matchup the Irish were hoping would spice up their football schedule.
This one’s got all the necessary ingredients to create that special level of intrigue and anticipation: Prime-time, two top-15 teams going against each other in one of the sport’s most hallowed venues, and ESPN’s College GameDay will be there to cover the day’s events from start to finish.
Notre Dame enters their bout with the Tigers with a 4-0 record and a No. 6 ranking in the current AP Poll. However, the Irish also enter the contest as a slight underdog, as most Vegas sports books currently have Clemson as a one or two-point favorite.
The fact that Clemson was installed as a slight favorite isn’t surprising. The Tigers have one of the most talked-about quarterbacks in college football: Deshaun Watson, a great home-field advantage, a defense that currently ranks in the top 10 in both total defense and scoring defense, plus a bye week in Week 4 gave them even extra time to prepare.
On paper, this would appear to be a truly tough test for the Irish. However, if you’ve watched these two teams play at all this year, then it’s easy to see that Notre Dame is the superior squad in this clash.
Though the Irish lost starting QB Malik Zaire for the season, they’ve got more than enough talent to overcome, persevere and succeed.
Hot-shot NFL prospects and All-American candidates such as LT Ronnie Stanley, WR William Fuller and the standout defensive trio of Smith, Day and Russell are the stars who routinely make the headlines. But it’s emerging standouts such as QB Deshone Kizer, RB C.J. Prosise and LB Joe Schmidt that make this year’s Irish squad so intriguing.
They’re the players who have to step up and shine in a game of this magnitude. Judging from their performances thus far, they’re ready to do just that.
Brian Kelly knows what it’s like to navigate a team through potential pitfalls and lead a group of players to the promised land that is the national championship game. Kelly knows he’s got a special collection of talent that’s capable of special things this year. On Saturday night, he’ll get to unleash it in a spotlight game in front of a prime-time national audience.
Prediction: Notre Dame 26, Clemson 21