At long last, after months and even years of consternation, it’s finally time for us all to focus on a newly vulnerable, bright orange behemoth that shockingly ascended to the top of its field in the middle of the previous decade, taking on a familiar face that just hasn’t been able to achieve its primary goal for decades despite institutional advantages, but now has as good a shot as ever to be #1. Sorry, had to do it.
By no fault of their own, the Irish have not played a good schedule this year. That goes without saying, and it won’t matter one bit come Saturday. Regardless, they’ve been impressive enough to merit respect on a national level — this “would they beat BYU on a neutral field” test is my new preferred definition of “elite.” We’re in good company!
Pretty cool and pretty important to have Kyle Hamilton play his probable best game of the year just before Clemson. That goes double for Daelin Hayes — we know not to worry about Kyle, but this pass rush comes and goes, so if he and Ade and Isaiah are on full tilt vs. the Tigers, the Irish have a real shot.
It is, though, still hard not to be concerned about the non-JOK linebacker spots, and how they match up against Travis Etienne (and D.J. Uiagalelei, for that matter). Marist Liufau will miss the first half, Shayne Simon’s been average, and I don’t know what Clark Lea’s solution will be. Jack Kiser, who finished tied for second most Irish tackles against GT, will likely see a lot of snaps. The line needs to be as stout as it’s been this year. All that said, you’d be perfectly reasonable to pin this defense as the best in the country.
It’s nice to finally root for a team that can so casually shrug off potentially disastrous mistakes like they’re nothing. Kyren Williams is especially vicious to opponents after his own individual slip-ups, another reason he’s one of the most fun Irish players in recent memory.
The Irish have been running a lot of plays, inevitably resulting in a lot of plays that aren’t exactly pretty, but converting on third down at such a high clip (11 straight third and short conversions on the ground!) is, for now, enough to get the job done. Let’s hope that success in high leverage moments sustains itself. This offensive line, in tandem with #23, makes that a realistic belief. The Irish just need to set themselves up for success on early downs (e.g. don’t fall into the trap of running the ball too frequently on second and long).
The ball never felt like it was ever really in danger in Ian Book’s hands — sure, we all know how infrequently he turns the ball over, but he’s usually good for several nervy throws a game. To his credit, his misses (and there were a few notable ones) were mostly in spots where no one could make a play on the ball. Some may scoff at that, but it’s considerably better than the alternative! My tentative pick for Irish MVP (in the event of an upset) are Book’s legs. He’s good at picking his moments, and is incredibly efficient when he does. Quarterback scrambles are, for better or for worse, one of this offense’s most valuable weapons, and there’s no use pretending that’s not the case.
Do things suddenly feel more or less settled at receiver? No one’s saying this is the ideal lineup, but Javon McKinley (5 catches for 93 yards) and Avery Davis (4 for 29) have progressed to a comfortable point where both should qualify as pleasant surprises. Davis and Chris Tyree can be sort of a Frankenstein’d Braden Lenzy — the more touches we can get those two in space, the better. Throw in soon-to-be superstar Michael Mayer, some creative play designs from Tommy Rees, and the offense has enough at its disposal to lean on its strengths (mostly: size) and win this game if all goes well.
FBS’ longest active winning streak and the historic home winning streak are in grave danger. But that’s why you play the game. You build the program and beat up on lesser opponents to get to this exact point. Trevor Lawrence’s absence is legitimately upsetting, and we hope he’s making swift progress in his recovery. But this Clemson team is still full of absolute freaks, none moreso than his replacement. Win the football game, and you’re number one in the country. It’s not quite now or never, but everyone’s sick of almosts. It’s all there for the taking.