Last updated December 28th, 2018
In just a few days, the college bowl season will kick into high gear for the NCAAF Playoff, which features the four best teams from the regular season competing to earn a spot in the National Championship Game in January.
This year, the two bowls are the Cotton Bowl Classic (4:00 PM ET Saturday, live on TV on ESPN) and the Orange Bowl (8:00 PM ET Saturday). Here we give our Cotton Bowl preview, featuring Clemson Tigers vs Notre Dame Fighting Irish, with predictions and betting picks.
Cotton Bowl History
The first of the two playoff games takes place at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic. Held annually since 1937, the Cotton Bowl had previously been the showcase for the winner of the Southwest Conference (SWC) and a team invited from elsewhere, normally one of the top independent programs or the runner-up from the Southeastern Conference (SEC).
The SWC dissolved in 1996 making way for the Cotton Bowl to host the Big 12 conference champion in its place, with an SEC team continuing to represent as the second team in the game. One of the top bowl games in the country, the Cotton Bowl was part of the New Year’s Six alongside the Rose Bowl, Sugar Bowl, Orange Bowl, Peach Bowl and Fiesta Bowl. In 2014, these six bowls, which are some of the oldest bowl games, were chosen to make up the college football playoff. The six bowls rotate on a three-year basis to host the playoff semifinals, with the Cotton and Orange Bowls paired together. The other pairings are Rose/Sugar and Fiesta/Peach.
Battle of the Undefeateds
This year’s college football playoff is the first of its kind in that it features not one, not two, but three teams that went undefeated in the regular season. One of those three teams is guaranteed to get their first and what will be their only loss of the year this Saturday when Clemson takes on Notre Dame.
Getting to an undefeated record is never easy especially when one plays the kind of schedule that both of these programs did. According to metrics ranking each team’s strength of schedule, Clemson ranked as having the 13th most difficult schedule and Notre Dame with the 25th. Now, that being said, Notre Dame’s SOS is the lowest of the four teams in the semifinals (Oklahoma, Alabama, Clemson) as well as lowest of the undefeateds, but that is not all that surprising given they aren’t in a conference. In fact, since the playoff began in 2014, Notre Dame has been the only independent program as well as the only non-Power 5 Conference (SEC, ACC, Big 10, Big 12, Pac 12) to make it into the semifinal.
Not being in a conference is certainly a disadvantage that Notre Dame faces every year. For one, their strength of schedule usually suffers as the quality of opponents just isn’t always there. But perhaps more importantly and more detrimental to the team’s playoff chances is that without a conference, Notre Dame doesn’t have the opportunity to take part in and win the conference championship. This year, they are the only playoff team not to have won a conference championship. They reached the playoffs on the merit of being undefeated and really, that’s the only way Notre Dame has a real chance of reaching the college football postseason. This year, that undefeated season featured victories over just four top-25 ranked teams. Three of the four were pretty decisive victories however, including their penultimate game of the season, a 33-point victory over #12 Syracuse. When it comes to the playoff committee making their selections, it’s definitely more important to make a strong final impression.
For Clemson, their road to an undefeated record was a little more straight-forward albeit a little more difficult. As members of the ACC, Clemson actually only faced two top-25 teams, neither of which finished the season in the top-15. In any other season, this could have hurt Clemson, but being undefeated is undeniable. Unlike Notre Dame Fighting Irish however, Clemson Tigers likely wouldn’t have had to go undefeated to make the playoff. They just made the committee’s job that much easier when they did, defeating Pittsburgh in the ACC Conference Championship game to book their spot in the playoff.
Our Preview’s Clemson vs Notre Dame Predictions & Picks Cotton Bowl Classic Verdict
With both teams having an SOS inside the top-25, it’s fair to say they didn’t go undefeated by accident or even by luck. Both of these teams came to their records because they are really good programs helmed by top coaches and comprised of NFL-caliber players.
This is the fourth year in a row that Clemson has played in the semifinals, meaning they have made all but one of the college football playoffs since the system started in 2014. This will be the first year for Notre Dame, though the team did play for a national championship in 2012.
Simply looking at the stats, Clemson is the better team and on first glance, is worth the 12.5 points they are favored on the spread by the finest of the America friendly sportsbooks. In fact, Clemson leads the tale of the tape in every major offensive and defensive category. Plus, they have been to this stage and they have won these games before. They should be huge favorites, even if they will be without three players including likely first round NFL draft pick, defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence. His replacement is likely to be the talented Albert Huggins.
Lawrence was a key player in helping Clemson finish the season with the second fewest points allowed (13.7), but he might not play due to a recent failed drug test. If Lawrence doesn’t play, it’s a big hit to one of Clemson’s biggest strengths. Because of that uncertainty, our recommendation is to take Notre Dame to top the 12.5-point spread favored to Clemson. If Lawrence is going to take the field however, things could change. He is just one player but in the guts and glory of a playoff semifinal game, one player in the trenches could make all the difference.
As for the total points that may be scored in this college football game, it’s currently set at 56.5. Both of these teams are more than capable of topping 56.5 as both average over 30 points per game. Both are also capable of keeping a score well under 56.5 as both defenses hold their opponents, on average, to less than 20 points per game. So really, what this all comes down to, other than Lawrence taking the field or not, is if Notre Dame can keep things close. Their best chance to win is in a relatively low-scoring game. Lawrence will have an impact on the total, so again, keep an eye on his status leading up to the game. For now, under the assumption he won’t play as B samples rarely come back negative after the A has come back positive, look for an over on 56.5 as Clemson could pull away late, just not enough to beat Notre Dame by 12.5.
So, in summary, our Clemson Tigers vs Notre Dame predictions and picks for this Cotton Bowl Classic preview are:
- Bet on Notre Dame Fighting Irish + 12.5pts @ best odds of -110 with Bovada, BetOnline or Intertops online bookmakers.
- Go over 56pts total points @ biggest odds of 56.5pts with Intertops or BetOnline. It is 57pts with Bovada.
Marilee writes on NFL, MLB, NBA & tennis for USA Betting. Another area of her sporting journalistic expertise is pro wrestling. A native of Philadelphia and a big Eagles fan, she has been a sports writer for many major websites including Bleacher Report and Rant Sports. She started her journalistic career early, as sports editor for her college newspaper.