Two immediate reactions followed the news last week that Clemson star quarterback Trevor Lawrence tested positive for coronavirus and would miss the highly-anticipated top-five matchup this weekend with Notre Dame.
One group believed that playing the top-ranked Tigers without their best player would boost No. 4 Notre Dame’s chances of winning its first game against a top-five opponent since Charlie Weis beat No. 3 Michigan in 2005.
The other group wanted Clemson at full strength for Notre Dame’s first matchup with a top-ranked opponent since the infamous Bush Push game against USC in 2005.
Unfortunately, be it in victory or defeat, the absence of Lawrence puts Notre Dame in a no-win situation.
We can already hear it …
If Notre Dame wins, “that game proves nothing without Lawrence at quarterback.”
And if Notre Dame loses, “they can’t even beat a top team without its best player.”
Ironically, the absence of Lawrence will have a greater impact on Notre Dame’s postseason fortunes then it will on Clemson’s.
Before Lawrence was sidelined, a compelling case was being made that a one-loss Notre Dame team could still earn a College Football Playoff invite if that single defeat came to Clemson this weekend and the Irish responded with a win over the Tigers, Dec. 19, in the ACC Championship game.
With Lawrence out, that theory no longer holds, in part because of the reputation Notre Dame has built from its history of big-game blowouts under Brian Kelly.
The Irish head coach is 0-5 against top-five teams in his 11 years at Notre Dame, losing those five games by an average score of 31-15, and that’s a problem.
Fair or not, the perception of Notre Dame not being able to beat the elite and the memories of the Irish losing to Alabama and Clemson by a combined score of 72-17 in its last two legitimate title runs will spoil almost any chance of an 11-1 finish for the Irish being playoff worthy.
Last season provides plenty of evidence.
Following the 45-14 drubbing to Michigan in game seven, the Irish dropped from No. 8 all the way to No. 16 in the AP Top 25.
Following the loss, Notre Dame won its final six games of 2019 by an average of 25.3 points — four of those by more than 30 points — yet, it only climbed four spots during those six dominating weeks and finished No. 12 in the final AP Poll.
Muddying perceptions further for Notre Dame was when Boston College — as a 26-point underdog — built a 28-10 lead last Saturday at Clemson with Lawrence out and true freshman backup QB D.J. Uiagalelei in.
The top-ranked Tigers clawed back and beat the Eagles 34-28, but the damage to Notre Dame’s playoff hopes was already done during BC’s quick start.
With two national titles and four appearances in the championship game since 2015, Clemson has rightfully gathered plenty of “street cred” inside the CFP selection room.
But with only one win against a top-five team in the last 22 years and 19 attempts, Notre Dame provides only uncertainty during its worthiness conversations.
Fair or not — and much can happen as other conferences continue to cannibalize each other — history suggests that a two-game split between Clemson and Notre Dame would keep the Tigers in the playoff conversation, but would likely turn the selection committee’s attention to another one-loss team when it considers the Irish, even if the ACC Championship trophy resides in South Bend.
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