Several Clemson players this week said that, while they respect the team coming to Death Valley, the Notre Dame legend is irrelevant.
Both teams are undefeated, both nationally ranked in the top half of the polls and the raw numbers since the first time Clemson and Notre Dame played reflect two programs with nearly identical success.
Yet, with all the accoutrements, there’s a sense among players that Notre Dame is the attraction.
“They have said we played two bad teams and then we struggled with Louisville,” Clemson defensive end Shaq Lawson said. “We, pretty much, try not to pay attention to that, because at the end of the day, if we do our job and execute on the field and win, we are going to move up, eventually.”
Many fans dismiss Notre Dame as a relic of “the black-and-white era,” yet college football’s premier independent continues to influence the game’s landscape with its singular network TV contract and special consideration in the College Football Playoff format.
Dabo Swinney believes it’s unfair that Notre Dame can carve a singular path to the playoff, but it doesn’t bother the Clemson coach any more than a team from the Big 12, which doesn’t have a championship game.
However, that does not color his respect for this team this week or coach Brian Kelly, nor does he believe his team should be concerned with slipping in the polls twice since the win at Louisville.
“Nobody’s going to give us anything,” he said Tuesday. “We’ve got to earn it. The polls are worthless. I have to do a poll every week, and it’s a waste of my time.
“There shouldn’t be a poll until October. Those same people who don’t believe in us, they’re the same people who believed in Auburn and believed in Arizona State and Oregon and all the other teams that (were) supposed to be No. 1 in the country.
“What does that mean? It means none of that stuff matters,” he said. “We’ve played three games. We’re probably about where we should be, I guess.”
Several players said they don’t understand what Swinney team needs to achieve to bring the nonbelievers across the line.
Since 1978, Clemson has won 68 percent of its 452 games, Notre Dame 65.7, Clemson leads in 10-win seasons 10-8 and top 25 seasons 20-18. Notre Dame has more first-round draft picks, 24-22, but an 11-15 record in bowl games, Clemson 15-14. Both have a national championship.
“We played Ohio State, beat them. We played Oklahoma, beat them. We played LSU, beat them,” said middle linebacker Ben Boulware. “I’m not saying we’re going to beat the crap out of Notre Dame, but we’ve played big-name opponents, and it hasn’t really affected us at all.”
Quarterback Deshaun Watson began attending Clemson games as a high school freshman and he hasn’t seen an appreciable change in attitude on the respect meter.
“We have kind of never had that respect, and for some reason we can’t get over that hump,” he said. “We are going to do what we have to do.
“If we focus on that, then we can get distracted with other things and can lose our focus.”
Safety Travis Blanks wasn’t convinced beating Notre Dame would change attitudes.
“Media didn’t believe us at the beginning of the season,” he said. “I feel like no matter what happens in this game, there’s still going to be doubt with Clemson.”
Swinney hasn’t been shy about playing the “respect” card for motivation, though he’s hoping the recent history will be sufficient. Clemson also has a 41-6 record at home since he became head coach.
“It really doesn’t matter what anybody thinks. If we handle our business, we’ll be right where we need to be,” he said. “We’re playing the fifth-ranked team in the country. If you want to be in the conversation, you’ve got to play great in these type of games.
“There’s so much football between now and when this question should matter,” he added.
“We’re just trying to play the 11 dudes they’re going to run out on the field.
“We’ve got to go play and have fun with it. As far as us against the world and all that type of stuff, no, we’re just going to go play the game.”
Tigers vs. Irish
Who: No. 11 Clemson (3-0) vs. No. 6 Notre Dame (3-0)
When: Saturday, 8 p.m.
Where: Memorial Stadium, Clemson
Line: Pick ’em