Notre Dame returns home after one of their most impressive victories of the year as they beat Syracuse 41-24 in upstate New York. If the Irish are peaking, it's a good time to be as No. 5 Clemson (fourth in the College Football Playoff rankings) visits Notre Dame Stadium this Saturday night.
Although it's not a game where both teams are playing for CFP positioning like we thought they could be, it's perhaps the biggest remaining test for the Tigers who look to remain unbeaten. What's different about this Clemson team than the others Notre Dame has taken on recently? We went behind enemy lines with Clemson Wire editor Alex Turri to get the 4-1-1 on everything Tigers.
Here is how Turri answered our questions about everything Clemson ahead of Notre Dame's biggest home game of 2022.
How does this Clemson team compare to the ones we're used to seeing as regulars in the CFP?
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Alex Turri of Clemson Wire: This first question is a tough one, as this Clemson team is by far the most unique playoff contender I've seen out of any since the program made its first playoff appearance in 2016. There has been a lot of good and a lot of bad out of the Tigers this season. Even so, the team has remained undefeated, with a No.4 ranking in the first CFP rankings. Assessing this team has come down to two things for me; one is essential to acknowledge when comparing them to some of the great Clemson teams we've seen in the playoff era, and the other is more of a reality. When it comes to potential, this team could crack the top three of all time for the program just because of the defense alone. When it comes to performance, this Tigers team isn't nearly as polished as some of the great teams of the past. DJ Uiagalelei has progressed a ton, but if the Syracuse game proved anything, things could turn south fast. The defense has some of the best talents in the country, yet the secondary is exposable, to say the least. I do believe this Clemson team could surprise a lot of people if they run the table and make an appearance in the playoff, but when it comes to comparing this group to the Clemson we're used to seeing, I'd say they're middle of the table to a slight notch below.
How has D.J. Uiagalelei developed this season after a disappointing 2021?
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Alex Turri of Clemson Wire: Clemson starting quarterback DJ Uiagalelei is coming off his worst game of the season by far. I'm acknowledging this before diving deeper into the player because, love him or hate him, Uiagalelei really is an entirely different player from the one we saw in 2021. Sure, he looked like the Uiagalelei of old against Syracuse. Still, after the way he's handled himself this season and the expectations some had for this team with him under center, the junior quarterback, has shown up for the program. Statistically, Uiagalelei is lightyears beyond what he was his sophomore season with 1,803 yards, 17 passing touchdowns, and just four interceptions with a passer rating of 149.4. He lost a ton of weight, adding much-needed mobility to his game that was lacking last season. Uiagalelei may not be the player people expected him to be when he was a prospect, but he is a solid quarterback with a very high ceiling. There's still a lot to work on but the difference between last season to this one is night and day.
How has Clemson done in dealing with the loss of both coordinators from a year ago?
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Alex Turri of Clemson Wire: I'm going to keep this short and sweet. Good, not great. Clemson is undefeated, so I'd be a fool to complain too much about two first-year coordinators who have helped their team to this position. On offense, Brandon Streeter's play calling has actually been a little refreshing as he's proven far more willing to open up the playbook than Tony Elliott was last season. On defense, Wes Goodwin had a slow start but has picked things up tremendously, making adjustments when needed. Goodwin's job is the tougher task because, in my opinion, Brent Venables was the best coordinator in the country. Both have done a fine job.
What is the biggest key in stopping this Clemson offense and how is it achieved?
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Alex Turri of Clemson Wire: The biggest key to stopping Clemson's offense is stopping starting running back [autotag]Will Shipley[/autotag]. The sophomore running back is the heart and soul of the Tigers' offense, and at this point in the season, shutting him down would likely do more than enough to shut down the offense as a whole. In Clemson's last two games, Shipley has 358 total yards of offense, seemingly carrying the offense to a comeback win over Syracuse. This Clemson team isn't the same as we've become accustomed to over the Swinney era, as the team no longer has their Mike Williams, Tee Higgins, or Hunter Renfrow-type receivers. To stop the Tigers' offense, you do everything you can to stop Will Shipley and limit the tight end Davis Allen and Jake Brinningstool. Making D.J. Uiagalelei and the widde receivers beat you is the best way to stop this offense.
Clemson's defense is truly elite. What is it best at?
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Alex Turri of Clemson Wire: Clemson's defense has one of, if not the best defensive line in college football. The group is best at making plays when the team needs it the most. Most would point to the defense's ability to make their opponents one-dimensional, shutting down the opposition's run game but I lean towards the big play machine the defensive line is showing up in the clutch. Clemson is a second-half team and the defensive line turning things up to the next level is a big reason for it. The Tigers' defensive line wreaks havoc.
If it's vulnerable at all - where is that at? (Clemson D)
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Alex Turri of Clemson Wire: Clemson's secondary is exposable. We've seen it multiple times throughout the season though they have been better in recent weeks. The issue for Notre Dame is that I don't believe they have the weapons to expose Clemson's secondary to the extent others can. [autotag]Michael Mayer[/autotag] will get his, as almost any defense will have trouble stopping a guy like him. Outside of Mayer, I'm not sure if the weapons are there. If Notre Dame's passing attack shows up to play, Clemson's secondary is definitely vulnerable.
How does potential bad weather impact Clemson's offense?
USA TODAY SPORTS -Alex Turri of Clemson Wire: Honestly, as a run-first team, the weather in South Bend should benefit the Tigers' a little more than some would expect. Sure, the cold weather isn't something the team experiences too often, but this isn't a Deshaun Watson or Trevor Lawrence-led Clemson offense. The impact should be minimal as a run-first team unless Notre Dame can shut down Clemson's run game consistently.
Does Dabo Swinney get the love nationally that he deserves or is being dominant in the ACC held against him too much?
Oct 22, 2022; Clemson, SC, USA; Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney and Clemson co-defensive coordinator Wes Goodwin talk in the closing seconds during the fourth quarter at Memorial Stadium in Clemson, South Carolina on Saturday, October 22, 2022. Mandatory Credit: Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports
Alex Turri of Clemson Wire: [autotag]Dabo Swinney[/autotag] 100% does not get the love and credit he deserves nationally. I genuinely can't think of another coach with as impressive of a resume as he has who gets so much unnecessary hate and lack of recognition. When it comes down to it, if you want to be an SEC or Big 10 homer, I get it. Two great conferences that year after year will typically be the top two conferences in the country. Enjoy that; Swinney and the Tigers don't care. If you want to talk conferences before the playoff, great, but Swinney's resume speaks for itself. Swinney has two national championship wins over SEC darlings Nick Saban and Alabama. Look at where the Clemson football program was before Swinney took over. Give the man his flowers!
How does the Clemson fan base view Notre Dame after seeing them what will be a fifth time in the last seven years?
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Alex Turri of Clemson Wire: I'd say the average Clemson fan doesn't think too highly of Notre Dame though I wouldn't say hate is a big part of the relationship. Everyone looks back fondly on the 2015 classic at Clemson with some wild weather and a wild finish. I think things would be different if Clemson didn't win that 2020 ACC championship game, but the Tigers did. Hard to have too many negative thoughts about a team you have had success against in recent history, right?
What happens this Saturday night in South Bend?
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Alex Turri of Clemson Wire: It should be close in South Bend, but I think Clemson walks away with a make-or-break win on the road. Clemson, at this point, is the more talented team, and they match up with the Fighting Irish really well. Notre Dame's run defense has been middle of the pack this season, and I'm not too sure why Dino Babers and the Orange didn't give Sean Tucker a heavy workload in their home loss to Notre Dame. Streeter and the Tigers won't make the same mistake and will give their superstar Will Shipley the workload needed for the offense to do enough. The Tigers also match up really well on defense with the Fighting Irish, as Clemson has a suffocating run defense. Clemson's secondary is the team's weak point, but we all know Notre Dame's 106th-ranked passing offense isn't a strength of theirs. I do think this game should be close, but I also think Clemson just matches up too well with the Fighting Irish to think they'll lose.
Clemson 31, Notre Dame 21
What ultimately happens with Clemson in 2022?
Dec 19, 2020; Charlotte, NC, USA; Clemson Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney celebrates with the trophy after winning the ACC Football Championship at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
Alex Turri of Clemson Wire: I believe Clemson will win this game against Notre Dame and wins out to make the CFP. This team has the talent to make a run, and if they escape South Bend with the win, the Tigers should be able to win out and take down likely opponent UNC in the ACC Championship. One loss and Clemson's playoff hopes are done, but I see a clear path to an undefeated season. Once in the playoff, however, I have my doubts Clemson will be a complete enough team by that point to make a run for the national championship. I see Clemson making a run to the playoff but going much further… I'm not sure.
Story originally appeared on Fighting Irish Wire