In the days leading up to one of his school’s most anticipated games in recent history, Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney said his phone has been bombarded with calls from old acquaintances wanting in on a piece of the action.
“I’ve got calls from people I haven’t heard from in 20 years. ‘Hey man, you got some tickets? I don’t need but five,'” Swinney said this week.
No. 12-ranked Clemson and sixth-ranked Notre Dame survived September undefeated despite a rash of key injuries and will meet tonight in Clemson S.C. The game’s outcome could ultimately have a role in determining a spot in college football’s four-team playoff.
Almost a foot of rain is expected to drench the area this weekend, according to the National Weather Service. With ESPN’s “College GameDay” on hand, however, there were no plans to postpone the game.
The Tigers (3-0) and Irish (4-0) have been hit hard by injuries, with both missing a handful of players expected to be starters.
Among the most prominent missing players for Clemson are All-America receiver Mike Williams and defensive tackle D.J. Reader. Notre Dame’s injured contingent includes quarterback Malik Zaire, who was hurt in a victory at Virginia, and tailback Tarean Folston.
Still, tonight’s combatants have persevered and can count themselves among a dozen or so teams with legitimate playoff aspirations.
Clemson lost a bevy of talented playmakers from last season’s highly rated defense, yet Tigers defensive coordinator Brent Venables has done a masterful job in his new assignment after changing addresses from Oklahoma and the Big 12 Conference.
None of Clemson’s previous three opponents has featured top-shelf offenses by any stretch, but the Tigers’ defensive averages of 13.5 points per game and 4 yards per play are nothing to take lightly.
Deshaun Watson is a Heisman Trophy-caliber quarterback breaking in a lot of new faces, especially at receiver. True freshmen Ray Ray McCloud and Deon Cain are two of those newcomers trying to ease the loss of Williams, who has not played since suffering a small neck fracture in the season opener.
Under coach Brian Kelly, the Irish are 2-5 on the road against ranked teams, with both wins (Michigan State and Oklahoma) coming during the magical 2012 season when they reached the national title game before being dismantled by Alabama.
Sophomore quarterback DeShone Kizer has filled in admirably for the fallen Zaire, but this marks his first road start. Debuting against a Venables-coached Clemson defense in Death Valley does not provide a large margin for error. Expect the Tigers to come early and often in an attempt to rattle Kizer and force a bad decision or two in the rain.
Clemson is 41-6 straight up at home in Swinney’s seven seasons and will be looking to record its 12th consecutive home win. Go with the Tigers as 1½-point favorites.
Five more plays for today (home team in CAPS):
* OKLAHOMA (-6½) over West Virginia — Although 3-0 and drawing rave reviews in some corners, West Virginia is somewhat of an unknown quantity. On one hand, the Mountaineers have throttled a trifecta of teams that will be spending the holidays somewhere other than a bowl game. On the other, West Virginia faces its first true test of the season in Norman. Expect Sooners offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley and budding quarterback Baker Mayfield to expose the Mountaineers’ weaknesses and take them right out of the Top 25.
* RICE (+7) over Western Kentucky — The Hilltoppers are known for their prolific offense under second-year coach Jeff Brohm, but they are not the same team without tailback Leon Allen, who was lost for the season because of injury three weeks ago against Louisiana Tech. Allen rushed for more than 1,500 yards and caught 51 balls out of the backfield last season, and that kind of production will not be easily replaced.
Rice, meanwhile, was overmatched last week against Baylor’s downfield passing attack, but competed well statistically at Texas. The Owls are 15-8 ATS as home underdogs since the start of the 2006 season.
* TEXAS CHRISTIAN (-15) over Texas — Texas has a rich history of defensive greats. Names from yesteryear such as Tommy Nobis and Jerry Gray to more recent standouts Earl Thomas, Brian Orakpo and Derrick Johnson.
Unfortunately for the Longhorns, none of those guys will be in uniform against TCU’s high-octane offense led by quarterback Trevone Boykin and receiver Josh Doctson.
Doctson had 18 catches for 267 yards and three touchdowns in last week’s 55-52 escape at Texas Tech and could post similar numbers against a porous Texas defense.
* Air Force-NAVY (Under 49½) — Clearly, teams that practice year-round against the option perform better against this type of offense that is almost exclusively utilized by the service academies. To support that theory, 17 of Navy’s past 19 meetings against Army and Air Force have gone under the total. With Hurricane Joaquin closing in on the East Coast, I’ll call for a low-scoring game in Annapolis, Md.
* Oregon (-7½) over COLORADO — Fresh off a humiliating 42-point home loss to Utah, the Ducks must be scratching their heads en route to Boulder, Colo. No longer in the playoff conversation, Oregon is being undervalued in this spot. Points probably will be scored in droves, but Oregon has far more weapons, whether it’s Vernon Adams Jr. or Jeff Lockie at quarterback.
Last week: 3-2-2 against the spread
Paul Stone of VegasSportsAuthority.com is providing college football analysis for the Las Vegas Review-Journal.