CLEMSON — The old-timers in the stands or reading the newspaper are salivating over this matchup. Most, but not all, of Clemson’s players on the field aren’t as awestruck of Notre Dame’s place in college football.
Notre Dame has produced 11 national championships, seven Heisman Trophy winners, 187 first-team All-Americans and the highest winning percentage in college football history. Knute Rockne, George Gipp and the Four Horsemen add to the mystique.
Ask a bunch of 18- to 23-year-old Tigers to tap their knowledge bank of the Fighting Irish’s tradition, and the majority scratch their heads or don’t have much to offer.
“I mean, I don’t go to Notre Dame. I know the history of Clemson football. That’s why I came here,” junior linebacker Ben Boulware said. “I don’t have a clue about Notre Dame.”
Before the days of ESPN and Twitter and every game on television, Notre Dame cornered the market on attention, becoming a national brand over the past half decade.
“That’s the difference today, I think, for our young people — they can watch whatever they want whenever they want. When I was growing up you didn’t have that option,” said Clemson’s 45-year-old head coach, Alabama native Dabo Swinney. “You watched Hee Haw or Lawrence Welk or Bonanza, and Notre Dame football was on TV.”
But there is another difference. Notre Dame hasn’t been nearly as dominant as it used to be.
Just consider a direct comparison of the teams set to be featured this Saturday night on ABC. Since Notre Dame’s only previous visit to Clemson, the Tigers’ program has more wins, bowl wins and top-25 finishes, and the same amount of national championships — one for each side.
Notre Dame claimed its last and 11th national championship on Jan. 2, 1989, to cap a perfect 12-0 season under Lou Holtz. Three and a half years later, defensive end Kevin Dodd, the oldest player on Clemson’s current roster, was born.
Asked how much players appreciate Notre Dame’s history, Clemson director of player relations Jeff Davis said, “Probably not to the extent that we did, because there’s so much parity in football now. But I still think they recognize it enough to a certain degree. They recognize Notre Dame, the tradition, the name, the influence it has in college football.”
Maybe the recognition is there, but the reverence isn’t.
“I have much respect for Notre Dame and their program and their history. But a name doesn’t really bother me or this Clemson team,” sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson said. “It doesn’t matter who we play, it’s how we play. That’s the mentality around here. If we play to our standard, we should be just fine.”
A few of the Tigers know their Notre Dame history. Cruelly, senior center Ryan Norton has started 26 games, but he’ll miss this one with a knee injury.
“Rudy’s one of my favorite movies of all-time. Growing up, I was like, Notre Dame must be a pretty dang cool school,” said Norton, who was briefly recruited by Notre Dame out of Mauldin High School. “No matter how long football goes on, Notre Dame has a name.
“Notre Dame’s a big name, but it’s just another game. You have to think of it that way, or it will eat at you and affect you more than it should.”
Redshirt freshman defensive end Richard Yeargin was verbally committed to Notre Dame for about six months in the fall of 2013, before deciding to stay a bit closer to his family in Florida and signing with Clemson in the class of 2014.
“Well, Notre Dame is considered the winningest program all-time in college football, so that carries a lot of weight,” Yeargin said. “It just has a different feel. Clemson obviously has great tradition as well, but Notre Dame has a different touch to how they do things.”
There’s been a tinge in the voices of Clemson players this week, those who grasp the aura of Notre Dame and those who don’t, they won’t take a back seat to the Golden Domers.
“We’ve played Ohio State, beat them. We’ve played Oklahoma, beat them. Who else? LSU, beat them,” Boulware said. “I mean, 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, so I don’t think the name Notre Dame’s going to affect us.”