If there’s a single prevailing theme to this fifth rendition of the College Football Playoff, it’s superstar quarterbacks.
There are three of them.
Oklahoma dual-threat dynamo Kyler Murray won the Heisman Trophy. His opponent in Saturday’s second semifinal, Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, had both arms wrapped around the Heisman for much of the season until an ankle injury slowed his #RollTide roll.
And then there’s Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, a 6-6, golden-armed freshman who everyone just assumes will glide into Aaron Rodgers or — why not just say it? — Tom Brady territory someday.
How the heck is a lunch pailer like Ian Book supposed to compete with all that?
Ah, but Notre Dame people will assure you that Book, a junior from Northern California, belongs on this grand stage. That there’s more than a little gold in his arm, too. That he’s built for this moment.
The truth is, Book has been the game changer for the Irish since taking over as the starter in Game 4 of the season. His decisiveness in the passing game — snap it, read it, rip it — has enabled the Irish offense to make the most of its considerable tools.
Wideouts Miles Boykin, Chase Claypool and Chris Finke and tight end Alize Mack all are more dangerous thanks to Book’s self-assuredness. Running back Dexter Williams benefits, too, as even a defense as formidable as Clemson’s will see.
There’s no pigeonholing the Irish offense. It’s balanced, it’s complete and it’s the best coach Brian Kelly has had in his up-and-down run at the school.
And here’s the beauty of it: Book doesn’t see himself as an outlier in this playoff at all.
“There’s a lot of pressure that comes with being quarterback,” he said. “You have a bigger target on your back, but it’s something that I dreamed about since I was in about third grade. So I just feel really fortunate.”
Mojo matters in this case, too. The Irish could have fractured when incumbent starter Brandon Wimbush was demoted and Book handed the reins — such a thing had happened on Kelly’s watch before — but Book helped make sure this season would be different.
Just look back to 2016, when DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire battled each other so hard, the team fell apart. At least, that’s how linebacker Drue Tranquill tells it.
“Our locker room just split,” Tranquill said. “And it was awful. It was everything you hoped to stay away from in regards to just team camaraderie and togetherness. It was like there were two different camps, almost. And maybe the guys in the locker room wouldn’t admit to that, but I think looking back, that’s kind of what happened.”
That Irish team imploded on the way to a 4-8 finish. This one has soared to 12-0.
Irish defensive coordinator Clark Lea calls Lawrence “incredible,” an adjective that doesn’t seem at all too much.
“I don’t know that there will be a snap where we won’t be concerned with their ability to go the length of the field on Saturday,” Lea said.
That isn’t too much, either.
For Notre Dame, though, this is as much about attitude as it is about matching up with the five-star-fueled Tigers. Lawrence isn’t even the top story when it comes to this Clemson team. All season, the top story has been one of the greatest defensive lines in memory. The headlines going in are about whether or not 350-pound monster Dexter Lawrence will play after he and two teammates tested positive for the banned substance osterine.
Sam Mustipher and the rest of the Irish offensive line aren’t wasting time worrying about how that drama will unfold.
“I’m not concerned we’re not going to get a good challenge up front,” he said. “I know we will, and we’re looking forward to that.”
Oklahoma is No. 1 in the country in total offense. Alabama is No. 5. Clemson is fourth — and fourth in total defense, too.
The Irish are 28thin offense. But they’ll throw the Book at the Tigers and see if that’s good enough.
NO. 2 CLEMSON VS. NO. 3 NOTRE DAME
The facts: Saturday, 3 p.m., ESPN, 1000-AM, Arlington, Texas.
The records: Clemson 13-0, Notre Dame 12-0.
The storyline: The last time the Irish played for the national title, at the culmination of the 2012 season, they trailed Alabama 35-0 before they could blink. They’ve come a long way since then, with coach Brian Kelly emphasizing line play on both sides of the ball and overall team speed as well. This is Kelly’s best team, and it isn’t even close.
Clemson is a different animal, though. The Tigers are in the playoff for the fourth year in a row. Their average margin of victory — nearly 32 points — is ridiculous. The Irish are used to much closer games, which could be a good thing if they stay in it into the fourth quarter. And why shouldn’t they?
The line: Tigers by 12½.
Greenberg’s pick: Clemson, 34-31.
NO. 1ALABAMA VS. NO. 4 OKLAHOMA
The facts: Saturday, 7 p.m., ESPN, Miami Gardens, Florida.
The records: Alabama 13-0, Oklahoma 12-1.
The storyline: Is it Kyler Murray and Tua Tagovailoa? Or is it Tagovailoa and Murray? Whatever your 1-2 order of the top two quarterbacks of the 2018 season, the Sooners’ Murray and the Crimson Tide’s Tagovailoa (not necessarily in that order) will be getting all the hype.
But make no mistake: What this matchup really boils down to is the big, fat question of if Oklahoma’s preposterously bad defense can rise to the occasion and do anything less than humiliate itself.
In every conceivable way, Alabama is the best opponent Oklahoma will have faced. It’s just as true, though, that the Tide haven’t seen an offense nearly as potent as this one. Their own “D” will be tested, and maybe even embarrassed a bit.
The line: Tide by 14.
Greenberg’s pick: Alabama, 45-35.