Cotton Bowl: Notre Dame’s ability to withstand Clemson’s defensive line will be key factor

Notre Dame named Ian Book its starting quarterback on Sept. 22. Two days later, Clemson made a similar call in promoting Trevor Lawrence into the starting role, ahead of an established starter fresh off an Atlantic Coast Conference championship and berth in the College Football Playoff.

The most obvious theme that binds together the Irish and Tigers in advance of the Cotton Bowl is the difficult choice each coaching staff made at the game's most crucial position: At a moment when both could've stayed the course under center, Brian Kelly and Dabo Swinney opted to roll the dice behind unproven backups before the end of the season's opening month.

"That's why we recruited him," Swinney said of Lawrence. "It was pretty clear in the spring that this guy is going to be special."

Each coach has looked brilliant in hindsight. Book has lifted Notre Dame's offense to new heights, with a polished arm and sneaky athleticism the perfect recipe for a scheme predicated on intelligent quarterback play. Lawrence has played far beyond his years, with 24 touchdowns and just four interceptions as a true freshman tasked with maintaining college football's greatest dynasty this side of Tuscaloosa. While neither starter brings ample starting experience into the Cotton Bowl, that fits into the story of this year's playoff: All four of the quarterbacks involved are first-year starters.

The team that can rattle the opposing quarterback will win the Cotton Bowl. That's easier said than done, of course. One might think that Lawrence would stumble at least once as a freshman. That simply hasn't happened. He was fantastic as the backup to Kelly Bryant, who has since opted to transfer, and equally consistent upon his move into the starting lineup. Book has been a revelation, as an under-recruited prospect who ascended up the depth chart in September and has since tossed 19 touchdowns while completing more than 70 percent of his attempts.

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