CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) — Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly doesn’t try to hide it: The Fighting Irish are looking directly at No. 1 Clemson and the chance to end the Tigers’ domination of the league.
And maybe believing is the the first step in knocking off Clemson.
“You’ve got to have a belief you can do it,” said EJ Manuel, an analyst for the ACC Network and former Florida State quarterback. “That’s important.”
Clemson has been the ACC’s most dominant football program the last six seasons, going 75-5 in that stretch with five straight league titles, five consecutive trips to the College Football Playoff and a pair of national championships.
There is no shortage of schools that would like to derail the Tigers this year. Fourth-ranked Notre Dame, No. 12 Miami (which is hoping for a second shot at Clemson) and No. 15 North Carolina all believe they have the talent to get it done.
The Fighting Irish, who compete in several ACC sports, added football because of the challenges fielding a schedule due to the coronavirus. These days, t hat means getting through Clemson and Kelly acknowledged the Tigers are on his mind even with a game to play before their Nov. 7 showdown.
“It’s risky because, in some instances, people would stay, ‘You’re looking ahead,’” Kelly said. “Well, we are looking ahead a little bit.”
Clemson has not been caught napping much during its six-year run. The Tigers have only lost twice to ACC opponents (Pitt in 2016 and Syracuse a year later). They have won 27 straight against league competition and Clemson is two games away from the ACC record of 29 straight set during Florida State’s run of success from 1992-2000 when the Seminoles won eight league titles, two national titles and went 70-2 in conference play.
“It’s not really common that people win like this and for such a long time,” said Clemson linebacker Mike Jones Jr. “Eventually, something’s got to fold,”
Jones gets questions from family and close friends about the streak.
“I could see how if you’re not here everyday,” he said, “… to think, ‘How are these guys doing it?’”
Former Tulane and Clemson coach Tommy Bowden had an up-close view of Florida State’s ascension as the son of Seminoles great Bobby Bowden and from the opposite sideline after he became Tigers coach in 1999.
Tommy Bowden said Florida State’s success then and Clemson’s run now were built on superior recruiting, an easily repeatable plan of effective preparation and the constant reminder to players of living up to past standards.
To combat that formula, Bowden said those chasing the Tigers must be as relentless in their own belief that they can hang in all areas.
“It doesn’t hurt to have some really good players,” Bowden joked.
That’s something the Irish, Hurricanes and Tar Heels have in common.
— Notre Dame has excelled on defense this season, leading the ACC in fewest points and yards allowed. The strength of that unit is against the pass, allowing just two passing TDs this season. That could serve the Irish well against Clemson next month; safety Kyle Hamilton is Notre Dame’s leading tackler and the Irish also have two experienced defensive backs in Shaun Crawford and Nick McCloud. Quarterback Ian Book threw for 312 yards and three touchdowns against Pitt and appears to have the Irish offense humming along.
— Miami missed its first opportunity this season in a 42-17 loss at Clemson earlier this month in what some thought would be a coming out party for the Hurricanes. But they are looking for a possible second shot at the Tigers in the ACC title game. The Hurricanes have bounced back from the loss to Clemson with two straight wins behind dynamic quarterback D’Eriq King, the transfer from Houston. The Hurricane defense, led by defensive back Bubba Bolden and linemen Jared Harrison-Hunte and Quincy Roche, is third in the ACC in fewest points allowed, behind only Notre Dame and Clemson.
— North Carolina has the firepower to keep up with the Tigers if the teams meet in the ACC title game. Sam Howell is perhaps the best quarterback in the league not named Trevor Lawrence and the Tar Heels’ tailback duo of Michael Carter and Javonte Williams are both averaging over 110 yards a game on the ground with a combined 13 touchdowns.
North Carolina coach Mack Brown still has plenty of questions about his team, particularly after his team fell behind Florida State by 24 points and couldn’t finish the comeback in the 31-28 loss two weeks ago.
Despite a rebound win over North Carolina State last Saturday, the Tar Heels have work to do to compete for an ACC title.
“We’re better than we were last year at this point,” Brown said. “We’re making progress. We see a lot of good things that are coming.”
AP Sports Writer Aaron Beard contributed to this report.