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Notre Dame Football

Notre Dame-Clemson Rivalry Ready To Explode

December 18, 2020

Regardless of the outcome, the simmering rivalry between Notre Dame and Clemson is going to heat to a full boil immediately after – if not during – Saturday’s ACC Championship Game.

Tensions between the two programs began building back in 2015, when they played for the first time in three decades.

Clemson’s 24-22 win over the Irish in a torrential rain helped propel the Tigers forward in the race to challenge Alabama for college football supremacy, an opportunity Clemson has taken full advantage of.

Dabo Swinney even glossed the win with a title - “Bring Your Own Guts” – on the field during his postgame interview with ESPN.

On the surface, Clemson’s 30-3 stomping of the Irish in the College Football Playoff a few years later provided evidence the gap between Notre Dame and the newest member of sport’s elite had grown, but Brian Kelly wasn’t having it.

In the wake of the 2013 BCS National Championship loss to Alabama, Kelly acknowledged the need to take another step forward in assembling talent. But Kelly had a markedly different reaction to the 2018 postseason loss to Clemson.

Rick Kimball/ISD
Kelly’s comments following the 30-3 loss in 2018 have proven to be accurate.

"I did not feel like there was an overwhelming difference in terms of talent," Kelly said after the game.

Tiger fans got a chuckle out of that comment. Even after Clemson players said the Irish were more talented than Alabama, who they’d beat for a national title a week later, Tiger fans saw that as additional evidence that the delta between their program and everybody else was truly significant.

And, as Notre Dame and its fans circled Nov. 7th, 2020 as the date for their next chance to prove worthy of being within the sport’s most exclusive tier and not on the outside looking in, the Tigers and their supporters didn’t give it the same consideration. They seemed to consider the date more of a field trip to see a relic of what the game used to be than a threat to their 36-game regular season winning streak.

The postgame reaction to the Irish’s 47-40 double-overtime win wasn’t unexpected and perhaps, wasn’t unfair, centering around the absence of All-American quarterback Trevor Lawrence and some key defenders.

There won’t be any preloaded excuses going into tomorrow’s game, but there’s a high likelihood the losers will develop some during the afternoon and early evening.

There’s no conceivable outcome that doesn’t result in the mercury of this rivalry rocketing through the thermometer.

If the Irish win, they’ll likely knock Clemson out of the Playoff and off the pedestal they’re refusing to concede. If the Tigers win a relatively close one, Notre Dame will be thirsting for a rubber match in the national title game. What a conclusion to a season that would be.

And if Clemson somehow blows Notre Dame out of Bank of America Stadium and out of the College Football Playoff, the hard feelings between the programs will literally last lifetimes.


Notre Dame has respected rivalries with USC and Navy. The Irish don’t have as much respect for Michigan, but it’s an exciting rivalry nonetheless. They’re each part of Notre Dame’s rich and lasting tradition.

But it’s the relatively brief feuds that truly raise the passion. They may not stretch through centuries, but battles with Army, Pittsburgh, Miami and Florida State have decided the balance of power in the sport for decades. That’s where Notre Dame finds itself as a program today.

Defeating rivals doesn’t define a successful season for the Irish at this point in time. Right now, beating everybody does and that means beating Clemson…again.

The respect is mutual, but so, it seems, is a passive aggression that is on the verge of being not-so passive. The friction is noticeable every time Kelly or Swinney subtly points out the differences in “business plans” or how they “do things.”

Kelly and Swinney are respected by the opposing fan base, but neither side is buying what the other is selling. Fans see the other school’s head coach as an embodiment of the phoniness of the entire program. And now, each side has a feel-good movie the other can pick through for historical inaccuracies.

They may not know it yet, but with four games scheduled over the next eight seasons, starting with a home-and-home in 2022 and 2023, Notre Dame and Clemson fans are going to be hating each other for a while.

And it’ll start in earnest sometime around 8 p.m. tomorrow night.

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