Advanced Outlook: Clemson-Notre Dame projections, players to watch

by - Staff Writer -
Ian Book and Notre Dame passing game have been hit-or-miss this year. (ACC photo)
Ian Book and Notre Dame passing game have been hit-or-miss this year. (ACC photo)

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney called Notre Dame “a complete team in every facet” earlier this week and the around-midseason numbers say that isn’t just hype.

They do appear to be teetering between good and great in some aspects where we’ll find out more Saturday night, however (7:30 p.m./NBC).

Notre Dame holds top-7 ratings overall in three metrics we track here, ranking as high as sixth in the same area where Clemson rates as high as third (ESPN's SP+). After holding top-5 marks recently, the Tigers have slipped a little when it comes to offensive and defensive efficiency.

Here's how the teams compare:

Efficiency ranks: Offense | Defense | Special teams

CU SP+ ranks (No. 4 overall): 6 | 10 | 15

ND SP+ ranks (No. 7): 16 | 8 | 28

CU ESPN ranks (No. 3 FPI rank): 9 | 4 | 74

ND ESPN ranks (No. 6): 12 | 16 | 62

(SP+ is a metric from ESPN's Bill Connelly, formerly of Football Outsiders and SB Nation, that combines ratings for the five factors of efficiency, explosiveness, field position, finishing drives and turnovers. ESPN’s own measure follows a similar formula to measure team efficiency and is tied to the ESPN Football Power Index.)

Three players to watch: Notre Dame

Notre Dame O-line

Notre Dame’s starting offensive line occupies the top-3 and five of the top-7 offensive grades for the Fighting Irish on Pro Football Focus, led by tackles Liam Eichenberg (Graduate; 6-6 203; 90.8 grade) and Robert Hainsey (Senior; 6-5 290; 90 grade) and center Jarrett Patterson (Sophomore; 6-5 305; 86.6). Notre Dame leads the nation in run blocking grade (89) and is just outside the top-20 in pass blocking (76.2).

LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah

The preseason All-ACC selection (6-2 215) leads the Irish with six tackles for loss, 17 total stops, a forced fumble and interception, grading 80.2 overall with solid marks in run defense (80.4) and coverage (79.5).

QB Ian Book

Book (6-0 206) gets a second crack at a Clemson defense after averaging 4.7 yards per attempt -- going 17-of-34 passing for 160 yards with an interception -- as a sophomore in the 2018 Cotton Bowl, a 30-3 defeat. Statistically, Book is a little down from his 2019 numbers in passing yards per game (204.2 from 233.4), QB rating (144 from 149) and yards per carry (4.2 from 4.9) but slightly up in passing yards per attempt (8.2 over 7.6) and rushing TDs (5 in six games over 4 in 13). PFF isn’t a big fan of Book, grading 13th-best among ACC QBs with multiple starts (60.1) and the Irish 82nd in passing grade nationally (59.4).

(Grades and advanced stats per Pro Football Focus)

Extra point

Notre Dame ranks in the top-10 in run defense (93.7 YPG) and grades just outside that area on PFF (12th; 82.1; Clemson leads the Power 5 defensively with a 91.8 grade).

Teams have stacked the line of scrimmage to help contain two-time ACC Player of the Year Travis Etienne and the Tigers are coming off a second-worst run grade (62.1) and worst run-blocking grade of the season (60.3) in the 18-point comeback win over Boston College.

Successful as a runner in that game? DJ Uiagalelei, who missed the week before with shoulder tightness, kept the ball on a read-option play and eased into the end zone from 30 yards out:

A big game under lights might just mean the QB-run game is a bigger feature, which can open up things for Etienne and play-action/run-pass options.

Over the last two seasons, Trevor Lawrence averaged 11 rushing attempts per game versus ranked opponents (sacks factored in with NCAA stats) and 5.6 yards per carry with three touchdowns. In unranked matchups, Lawrence averaged five rushing attempts and 4.5 yards per carry.

Going back to the Deshaun Watson era, he averaged 14 rushing attempts as a junior against ranked teams and eight in the other games. As a sophomore, the divide was even larger with 20 rushing attempts per in ranked games (109.8 YPG/5.4 YPC) against 10.7 in the rest (5.2 YPC/55.6 YPG).

The numbers weren’t as large when the two were freshmen, which probably speaks to developing that area of their game early. Clemson has already featured Uiagelelei in goal-line packages as a runner. His size and speed brings another element in that area and could be featured Saturday night.

(Situational stats per CFBStats)

The Projections

As referenced up top, the metrics like both teams -- and therefore with Notre Dame on the home field -- they’re picking as close a pregame spread as there’s been in quite a while for a Clemson regular-season game.

With the Tigers favored by 5.5 points currently, ESPN’s SP+ picks Clemson basically by a point (1.2). The FEI metric is closer to three points in the Tigers’ favor (2.6). ESPN’s Football Power Index is more bullish on Clemson with a 65.9% projection (as a TD favorite on a neutral field).

After performing well against the Vegas number last year (11-4), last week’s close call dropped the Tigers to 2-4 versus the spread in ACC games. We’ll see if things start to even out Saturday despite missing some key defensive personnel again.

Metrics outlook | Prediction

SP+ projection: 53% Clemson (Clemson by 1.2)

FEI: 57.6% Clemson (Clemson by 2.6)

ESPN FPI: 65.9% Clemson (Clemson by 7.4)*

* Point spread from the FPI rankings, which project a margin based on a neutral field.

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