Notre Dame vs Clemson: Then (2018) and Now (2020)

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It’s #1 Clemson at #4 Notre Dame Saturday night, in the biggest game of the year so far in college football. This game is also a rematch of the Tigers’ rout in the 2018 Cotton Bowl semifinal, so naturally we’ll be revisiting that.

With this in mind, I got back in touch with the man who was next to me all season long in the ND press box that season, Jon Opiela. (Game preview at this link)

Jon, how are you doing? Long time no see. Hope you are doing well, or at least as well as anyone can be doing in 2020.

It feels like it’s been ages since the last time I saw you in Dallas. I’m not sure if you remember the first time we met at the freshly renamed Guaranteed Rate Field, but that was a night that is forever etched in my memory.

All in all, I’m doing pretty well. I just moved out to Tulsa, Oklahoma and I’m working as the Assistant Director of Athletic Communications at Oral Roberts University now. I’m in the process of making the full transition from journalist to sports information director and I could not be happier with how it is going thus far.

Now if we could actually start playing sports, that would make it even better.

the cell white sox niu

Ah yes, it was the first college football game played in that stadium, and it was the night after the last Presidential election, and here we are posting this on 2020 Election Day. 2018 was a memorable season that ended in a very forgettable fashion, and we were next to each other in the press box seat for all of it, from South Bend to Arlington.

What are some of your memories of the Cotton Bowl, the game itself and all the breads & circuses that surrounded it?

I’ll never forget being home on Christmas break from college and getting that email saying I was approved for College Football Playoff credentials. I knew immediately that I needed to find a way to get to Arlington, Texas, while maintaining the “extremely broke college student” mentality.

With that, I had a rather… interesting week in regards to lodging in Fort Worth, but it all added to the experience. That was actually my first trip to Texas and the saying lived up to the hype – Everything is indeed bigger in Texas.

I still remember walking into the Omni Hotel where the media headquarters were and into AT&T Stadium and thinking to myself, “I’ve worked my butt off to get here, but I still feel like I don’t belong. I really need to soak up these moments and make the most of this experience.

Being a media member for a New Year’s Six and/or College Football Playoff game builds memories that last a lifetime.

Oh yeah, your housing down there, sounded, I’ll go with “gritty,” I guess.

I also recall that by mid second half, most of the dudes in our section of the press box were engaged in the Irish art of storytelling, doing what we could to keep ourselves entertained during a game that had long become unwatchable.

It was like we were doing a live, non-recorded podcast up there.

I wish I could remember who else we were sitting by but the stories we each heard and told that night were extremely engaging. I also remember that AT&T Stadium press box is where the two of us really connected on our love for Friday Night Lights.

friday-night-lights-auston-anderson

“Texas forever 6!”

And of course, the giant crystal wall of endless candy and incessant junk food snacks, the giant steel island in the midst of the media hospitality suit. In addition to three square meals a day and open bar for wine and beer, who could forget that?

I am now unashamed to say that almost each time I left the hospitality suite, I would snag some sort of snack that would later be consumed on my drive back home. I almost felt guilty indulging in the food and beverage that was provided but we ate well on that trip.

I also enjoyed the pop-a-shot machines in the corner. It’s almost as if they knew a bunch of Hoosiers were making the trip to Texas. Also, who could forget the 20 foot tall Galaga machine?

Nothing like free Guiness and all you can play old school arcade games.

On to present day now, what do you know about this D.J. Uiagalelei kid? He had fantastic numbers filling in for the covid+ Trevor Lawrence. Also, any special plans for watching this?

I don’t know a ton, but I did watch the Phil Jurkovec and D.J. Uiagalelei showdown on Saturday afternoon from start to finish. Uiagelelei has some tremendous arm talent, as the No. 1 quarterback recruit in the country should, and can also escape the pocket and make some plays with his legs.

For his first career start and carrying the No. 1 team in the country on his back, I would say that Uiagelelei impressed me, especially in the second half of action coming from behind.

Unfortunately, I do not have any groundbreaking analysis like I did on Trevor Lawrence during the Cotton Bowl. 

To this point, I don’t have any special plans but I would love to find something that is safe from COVID.

Brian Kelly said Monday that he would put himself on record as saying Travis Etienne is the best running back in college football- agree/disagree?

I agree wholeheartedly. I think Travis Etienne is definitely the top running back in the country currently.

Heck, I think Travis Etienne might be one of the best college running backs to ever come out of the ACC.

 

Of course the main talking points of the BK media session today related to 2018 and whether or not the gap has been closed.

Do you think it has? Clemson is without their QB1, on the road and still 5.5 point favorites. Meanwhile Fighting Irish supporters point to the fact that ND are 29-3 in their last 32 games and winners of 22 straight at home.

I think the biggest concern for Notre Dame is going to be the health of their defense.

During the 2018 game, at one point there were three defensive players who are now in the NFL who were out of the game.

Don’t get me wrong, Clemson was winning regardless, but that was when the floodgates began to open. I also think the play of the defensive line has the potential to create a newfound havoc that really was not shown during that 2018 Cotton Bowl.

Personally, I do not think the quarterback play is any better than it was for the Fighting Irish in 2018 and I would say that the talent at wide receiver has taken a step back.

I feel like the Irish have made substantial gains in the running game with the three headed attack of Kyren Williams, Chris Tyree, and C’Bo Flemster – all of whom are averaging over 5.5 yards per rush thus far.

I also see improvements with a very experienced offensive line and in the tight end room.

And of course, the complexion of the game changed entirely once ND cornerback Julian Love got hurt. As for the other side of the ball, well, the was not going to change in favor of the Irish, at all. I’ve joked for weeks that this is ND’s actual season opener, and no doubt this is a huge game, but I’m kind of with Kelly, when it comes to moderating the hype for this.

Like he said, they may have to play them again (ACC title game), and if they pull the upset here, but lose later, the win is pretty much devalued.

Thoughts?

To no surprise, Notre Dame is 6-0 to this point. With a combined record of 12-28 thus far, Louisville, Duke, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh, and South Florida have not really provided much of a challenge. Alright, Louisville did but I digress.

Unfortunately, I would agree with that statement. I feel as if you win now and then lose in the ACC Championship Game, I think they would be in danger of falling out of the College Football Playoff picture.

Especially with how weak the schedule has been to this point.

Also, this is just me, but then again I know a lot of other sports media guys who feel this way- nothing in sports feels normal this year, and of course, none of it feels anywhere near as big.

In the middle of a once-in-a-century pandemic, election week, strong chance for civil unrest coming up, well, no sporting event is “OMG SO HUGE!!! BIGGEST GAME EVER!!! even a game that looms as large as this one. Reaction?

I would absolutely agree with you. Despite this being the game of the college football season to this point (edging out No. 5 Georgia and No. 8 Florida), it seems to be on the back burner and rightfully so.

It is a bizarre week in American history and we’re seeing it unfold in front of our eyes by the moment.

Finally, an x-factor to consider, and despite all the coverage this game will get, this still might get overlooked. Boston College, they were game against Clemson. They are waiting for ND the week after this one.

It takes me back to the last time a ACC team came to Notre Dame Stadium for for “the game of the century.”

It was 1993, so before your time, but ND’s beating Florida State that November day was huge for making this teenager a college football aficionado for life. Then the Irish lost to B.C. the next week and that killed their national title chances.

Kelly even said himself today, at the presser that if they empty the tank to beat Clemson, and they do pull it off, Boston College is waiting right there next week to pick them off. Feedback?

Like you said, I was not around for that game but I do know plenty about it (Thanks ESPN’s 30 for 30: Catholics vs Convicts). I also think we have to look at who’s under center for Boston College. Nobody in the country should know Clark Lea’s defense better than Phil Jurkovec.

clemson tigers

Boston College always has the feelings of a trap game to me. Much like I said ahead of the Pittsburgh game, I think Jonathan Doerer will either have to be the hero in the BC game or the Irish turn on the burners and steamroll to a 40+ point victory.

I really don’t see a middle ground for that game.

Predictions: Jon   Clemson 34-24       Paul    Clemson 30-17

Paul M. Banks runs The Sports Bank, partnered with News NowBanks, the author of “No, I Can’t Get You Free Tickets: Lessons Learned From a Life in the Sports Media Industry,” has regularly appeared in WGNSports IllustratedChicago Tribune and SB NationFollow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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