Clemson prepares to embrace the stage against Notre Dame

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Notre Dame might as well be Louisville, Appalachian State or Wofford.

At least, that’s what Dabo Swinney is telling his team.

Admittedly, Saturday night’s clash between No. 6 Notre Dame and No. 12 Clemson is enveloped in a circus-like chaos, as College GameDay rolls into Death Valley and brings excessive helpings of anticipation, playoff implications and sign-toting fans along for the ride.

Swinney’s job, as it has been each week during his tenure as Clemson’s head coach, is to peel away the unnecessary layers that distract from the challenge at hand. In turn, Clemson’s opponent — in this case, the program with the highest winning percentage in college football history — is reduced to a nameless, faceless, thoroughly anonymous foe.

No golden dome. No rich tradition. No blue and gold, and sometimes, green.

Just the next hunk of meat heaved into the Tigers’ cage.

“The message isn’t any different than it was for Appalachian State or Wofford or Louisville,” Swinney said. “It’s about Clemson. It’s about us preparing. We just don’t really change what we do. We believe in how we prepare, and you don’t all of a sudden start practicing different because we’re playing Notre Dame.

“Our job is to get ready to play the game. Let’s let all of that other stuff stay outside of our box, if you will.”

Judging by his comments, Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson’s focus remains squarely inside the box. Despite the opponent, or the significant hype surrounding his eye-opening freshman season, Watson toed the company line.

What the coach said, the quarterback echoed.

“Of course, people are going to be jacked up and excited,” Watson said. “But the mindset and mentality is no different. The motto doesn’t change for our program. It doesn’t matter who we play. It’s how we play.”

That mentality has yielded a string of positive results, particularly at home. Since Swinney grabbed the reins midway through the 2008 season, Clemson is 41-6 in Death Valley. The Tigers have won 11 consecutive home games, dating back to a 51-14 drubbing at the hands of eventual national champion Florida State on Oct. 19, 2013.

A consistent approach, in this case, has produced consistent success.

“It starts with winning at home,” Swinney said. “Our guys have taken great pride, there’s no question about it. Death Valley has become a very difficult place for people to come in and win.

“We certainly can get beat. Any time you go out there you have a chance to get beat, especially when you play great teams. But our guys have played a lot of great teams, and they’ve done a great job of just being consistent week-in, week-out. That’s what I’m most proud of with our program.”

Notre Dame may be just another great team, but this isn’t just another weekend. Saturday’s game, though it flies in the face of every cliché Swinney has ever spouted, is different. Notre Dame’s weekly Showtime series speaks to that, as does the oversized mascot heads hiding under the table next to Lee Corso’s chair.

Can Clemson embrace the traveling circus, while simultaneously keeping distractions “outside the box”?

Swinney will find out on Saturday.

“There’s 120-something Division I schools out there, and GameDay chooses to come to your place,” he said. “I just think that’s a huge positive. I don’t see a negative in it. I think it’s great.

“It’s great exposure for our university and certainly our program. Everybody wants to have an opportunity to compete in games like this. You’re talking about Notre Dame. This is the winningest program in the history of football. It’s just an awesome opportunity.

“They’re all big, but some games bring an extra pizzazz with ‘em, if you will. Some outside things come along with it besides your normal preparation. Certainly, this game brings that, but we’ll embrace it and have fun with it and get ready to go play.”


Twitter: @mikevorel

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney runs down the hill before the start of an NCAA college football game against Appalachian State Saturday, Sept. 12, 2015, in Clemson, S.C. (AP Photo/Richard Shiro)