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5 things to watch as Clemson preps for Cotton Bowl

No. 2 Clemson (13-0) takes on No. 3 Notre Dame (12-0) in the Cotton Bowl on Saturday, Dec. 29, 2018, at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Here are five things to keep an eye on as the Tigers prepare for the game:

Brent Venables with several weeks to prepare

Clemson’s defensive coordinator is arguably the best in the nation, and he has been particularly good when given extra time to prepare. It will have been nearly a month since Clemson last played a game when the Tigers face Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl. Clemson’s defense has allowed an average of 17.7 points and 296 yards in bowl games (excluding national title games) in the six years that Venables has been at Clemson. Those performances came against some of the top programs in college football as Clemson faced Alabama, Ohio State (2), Oklahoma (2) and LSU.

Clemson’s offense continuing to improve

As prolific as Clemson’s offense has been in 2018 (the Tigers are currently No. 5 nationally in total offense), it is easy to forget that the unit is young. Clemson starts a true freshman at quarterback in Trevor Lawrence and a pair of true sophomores at receiver, as well as at running back. Clemson freshman Justyn Ross has also proven to be one of the most talented receivers on the team and one of Lawrence’s favorite targets. With Lawrence getting several practice days to gel with Clemson’s skill players around him, the Tigers have an opportunity to make a sizable jump offensively heading into the Cotton Bowl.

JV players stepping forward

Not only is the time between the ACC championship game and the Cotton Bowl big for Clemson’s players preparing for the matchup against Notre Dame, but it is also big for the Tigers as far as being prepared for the 2019 season. Clemson uses part of its practice time to work with “JV” players that are redshirting this year or that are not contributing much in 2018 but should next year. Several players have an opportunity to impress the coaching staff and show that they are ready to be counted on in 2019.

“A lot of those guys have been scout team all year. We’ve got a lot of guys that are good players that are going to have bigger roles next year,” Tigers coach Dabo Swinney said. “This is a great opportunity to get them some really good one-on-one work with everybody else out of the way.”

The secondary improving

If there is one question mark on this team, it is in the secondary. The unit has been dominant at times, holding first-team All-ACC quarterback Ryan Finley to 156 passing yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions in a 41-7 win. But it has also struggled at times as South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley torched the Tigers for more than 500 passing yards and five touchdowns. Swinney and Venables have maintained that they feel good about the secondary throughout the season, and Clemson’s defensive backs are confident. Still, when Clemson has struggled this season, it has been with communication, and having several weeks between games should certainly help.

Will Clemson star Dexter Lawrence play?

Swinney delivered unfortunate news for Clemson on Monday at his arrival news conference for the Cotton Bowl as he announced that three players, including star defender Dexter Lawrence, are facing a suspension for the College Football Playoff semifinal against Notre Dame after failing a drug test. Lawrence, tight end Braden Galloway and offensive lineman Zach Giella had a trace of ostarine in their systems, the NCAA told the Clemson athletic department last Thursday. Swinney said the players thought that he was joking when he called and told them the news, and he insists the players did not knowingly take an illegal substance. Swinney added that the players will have legal representation in an effort to get reinstated quickly. With that said, it is unlikely that any suspension will be overturned before Saturday’s game. Clemson is awaiting the results of the “B” sample, but the “B” sample was taken at the same time as the “A” sample and will likely be the same. There is a chance that the three players could be reinstated between now and the national title game, should Clemson make it to the Jan. 7 matchup as Clemson officials are working hard to prove that the players are innocent.

College Football Playoff schedule

Orange Bowl

The No. 4 Oklahoma Sooners (12-1) will face No. 1 Alabama (13-0) in the Orange Bowl at 8 p.m. Saturday (ESPN) in Miami in a matchup of Heisman Trophy front-runner quarterbacks — Kyler Murray of Oklahoma and the Tide’s Tua Tagovailoa.

Cotton Bowl

The No. 2 ACC champion Clemson Tigers (13-0) will play No. 3 Notre Dame (12-0) in the Cotton Bowl at 4 p.m. Saturday (ESPN) at AT&T Stadium in Dallas.