Notre Dame's national brand adds juice to Clemson game

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

CLEMSON, S.C. — All indications are that Clemson is legit.

But with lopsided wins over Wofford and Appalachian State, and a three-point escape from Louisville, the body of evidence is hardly convincing.

The college football world is justified to raise a skeptical eye brow at the Tigers heading into Saturday night’s game with Notre Dame.

This is their opportunity to claw their way out of the regionalized zoo they call the Atlantic Coast Conference, and take their place on a national stage with the Irish.

This game is a perfect example of why Notre Dame is — and should remain — an independent.

This is Clemson’s beat-all, end-all moment in the spotlight. Dealing with “the stage” will be as important to the Tigers as dealing with Will Fuller or Jaylon Smith. While the “Irish circus” that follows the team wherever it plays could be a distraction to the Clemson players or fans, it’s just a slice of everyday life at Notre Dame.

For Notre Dame, it’s a business trip: Step No. 5 in “the mission.” Since 2012, the Irish have played in some pretty hostile venues like Norman, Okla., and Ann Arbor, Mich., and came away with victories. Last year’s visit to Tallahassee came down to an official’s call.

What has been head coach Brian Kelly’s secret?

“We kind of temper it during the week in terms of enthusiasm versus emotion,” Kelly said. “We like enthusiasm. We want our guys to be enthusiastic about what they're doing and excited. Emotion drains you. So we're not a big fan of emotion. We try to temper the emotion and really work toward the enthusiasm. That's been my model and trying to direct our guys toward that.”

The time Kelly admitted he didn’t have a solid plan for handling his team was the national championship game. But all that has changed now, thanks to the playoffs.

Death Valley will just be another notch in Notre Dame’s belt. If the Irish don’t beat Clemson, it won’t be because they were intimidated by the stadium, fans, or atmosphere. It will be because Deshaun Watson is a pretty good quarterback and the Tiger defense, which has given up just over 12 point a game this season, caused havoc for young Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer.

The magnitude of this game isn’t lost on Clemson coach Dabo Swinney. But, then again, he may be trying add a little drama.

“Every week, to me, is the big stage,” said Swinney. “I love playing the best of the best. We're supposed to beat Wofford and we did. We're supposed to dominate App State, and we did. I love competing at the highest level. Maybe that's a better way to answer that. That's why I went to Alabama, because I wanted to play at the highest level and compete at the highest level.”

Please Dabo, don’t lump Wofford and App State with Notre Dame.

“They're Notre Dame. Are you kidding me?” Swinney said “This is the winningest program in the history of college football. We've played some good ones along the way. We've played LSU and Georgias and Oklahomas and Ohio States, and those are storied programs. How long (has Notre Dame) been around? 1887. Well, hopefully, 50 years from now, some other old boy will be standing up here at this podium or over there at the new facility, and it will be a whole new crew of media, and hopefully they'll be asking that other coach what's it like to play a storied program like Clemson University. That's what I hope.

“Hopefully one day somebody will ask that question about Clemson. But it's pretty obvious in this case. They've won in whatever, 11 National Championships, and they're Notre Dame. I mean, listen, I hope they don't bring Joe Montana with them, I can tell you that. They're just a great program that have had tons of great players, and All-Americans and great coaches, and they're a brand of their own.”

This is the “set-up” game in the big picture of the Notre Dame “mission.” This is the game the Irish have to win if they want the Southern Cal game at home in two weeks to mean anything.

Now that’s the Big Enchilada.

A loss in Death Valley changes the landscape and the trajectory of Notre Dame’s season. After the Tigers, Southern Cal and Stanford are the only two games left on the schedule with any sort of “juice” at all. Problem is, with each of them having lost already, there wouldn’t be any forgiveness for a previous loss packaged with an Irish victory.

As anticipated in August, this is an all-or-nothing season: 12-0 or bust. That zero-tolerance, no-margin-for-error existence will be put to the test against a Clemson team that considers itself ready to be a player on a national stage.

Even a brand has its limits.

Independence has a price.

Notre Dame takes the field before the Notre Dame-Georgia Tech game on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)