Forests are laid low for newsprint, social media explodes and air time is hijacked each time Clemson plays an ACC opponent with a pulse. Inevitably, we are let down. That's how dominant the Tigers have been in a conference that seldom punches back.
You want to believe, this time, that it's different. College football is getting all tingly over for No. 1 Clemson vs. No. 4 Notre Dame. COVID-19 has arranged as a conference game what was already one of the biggest matchups of the season between two top-five.
But this is what Clemson historically does in such games …
- 18.5 ... The Tigers' average margin of victory in their last four ACC games involving two top 10 teams.
- 4-0 ... Clemson's record in those games.
- 9-2 ... The Tigers' record since 2016 in games between two top 10 teams.
- 44-2 ... Clemson's conference record in the last six seasons.
- 15 ... The Tigers' road winning streak, the longest active stretch in the country.
- 30-3 ... The score Clemson beat Notre Dame by in their last meeting 22 months ago in the College Football Playoff semifinal.
With all due respect to the 6-0 Fighting Irish, we know how what the Tigers can do. How much has Notre Dame progressed since that night in Dallas?
"We're 29-3 in our last 32 games," coach Brian Kelly confidently told the media Monday. "We've won 12 in a row. You guys decide."
This, then, is the perfect bookend game to judge that Irish progress. The coronavirus has interceded to drive up the conference stakes. It's up to Notre Dame to make it matter. There is a conference title for which to compete, one that could slingshot the Irish into the College Football Playoff for the second time in three seasons.
Consider, though, that Clemson has built up so much capital it can "afford" to lose this game. If it then wins out, there is a possible rematch with Notre Dame waiting in the ACC Championship Game. Who is going to keep Clemson out of the CFP as an 11-1 ACC champion? Especially one that would have beaten the only team that handed it a loss? Especially one that is a known commodity inside that CFP Selection Committee meeting room.
"If you get beat, it doesn't mean you're out," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said.
That's from the man who with a victory would become the fifth coach to win his first three games against Notre Dame. The others … Amos Alonzo Stagg, Ara Parseghian, Jimmy Johnson and Nick Saban.
It's almost become tiring ginning up hype for Clemson's latest ranked ACC challenger. Yeah, it's Notre Dame at home with the nation's longest winning streak (12 games). But this is Clemson, part of a triumvirate that not are not only head and shoulders everyone in their conference but everyone in the country. Alabama and Ohio State are the others.
The Tigers have won their last 14 regular-season games against ranked ACC opponents. Is this Notre Dame team any different? It is playing defense (allowing 10.3 points per game) in an age when almost no one does. Liam Eichenberg is one of the nation's best left tackles.
It's getting to that next level that matters. Quarterback Ian Book has been a steady hand for Notre Dame, but he is no Trevor Lawrence or seemingly even D.J. Uiagalelei, who will make his second career start on Saturday.
Notre Dame's lasting memories of that night in Dallas have to hurt. Lawrence, as a freshman, had a coming out party with 327 yards passing and three touchdowns. The Irish's lack of team speed was evident. All-American cornerback Julian Love was injured briefly. His backup, Donte Vaughn, entered and was targeted twice on Lawrence scoring passes.
"We had some big plays," Swinney said this week. "If you really watch the game, it was a tough, tough game for both teams. We hit some big plays and got control of the game. Once we got control of the game, our defense, we're a tough team to come back on."
It was 21-3 at halftime. The game was essentially over. Kelly was asked back then what it's going to take to get over the next hump -- winning in the playoff.
"It's really too much to get into right now," he said.
Kelly got into this week when asked about Clemson injuries on defense.
"I'll take their fourth Sam linebacker," he said. "I'll take their fifth defensive tackle. I'll take their fourth defensive end. They're in pretty good shape."
Then and now, the consolidation of Clemson's talent is amazing. Defensive end Xavier Thomas was a freshman All-American in that Notre Dame game. Last month, he returned from a bout with COVID-19. In three weeks since being eased back into the lineup, Thomas already has 2.5 tackles for loss.
"I would say I'm about halfway there," Thomas said. "I know where I can be -- the best I can be. I'm nowhere near that."
Lawrence continues to be out with COVID-19. The story of how Uiagalelei came to Clemson has overwhelmed the run-up to Notre Dame. He grew up in Southern California loving USC and Reggie Bush. Baseball was his choice a middle schooler. At one point, Uiagalelei begged his mother to "ship" him to Dominican Republic so he wouldn't have to go to school and concentrate on baseball.
Clemson quarterbacks coach Brandon Streeter had never recruited in California. When he finally saw Uiagalelei live at St. John Bosco High School, it was football love at first sight.
"His practice was, like, from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.," Streeter told CBS Sports. "I literally got there at 4:45. I saw him throw two balls. That was enough for me to say, 'Hey, he's pretty good.'"
Swinney's jaw dropped when Uiagalelei showed up for his first Clemson camp with that rocket arm.
"Somebody's going to get hurt," the coach said.
Perhaps the biggest factor Saturday, Uiagalelei seems completely unconcerned with the gravity of the opponent, the game and the venue.
"Notre Dame is a great program," Uiagalelei said. "They have their own movie about them. … The only reason why it feels bigger is because it's the next game."
It's anything but the "next game" in South Bend, Indiana.
"I didn't want to just to get through those games and have to make a huge jump emotionally to play this game," Kelly said. "You can't do that. As I said, you won't be ready next week. This was about raising our level of compete on Saturday and beat Clemson and not worry about where we are the next week."
It is another cruel injustice of COVID-19 that this game of the year will played in a Notre Dame Stadium that will be one-fifth full. Consider all the magic that venue has produced over the decades. No matter what the outcome, something will be missing.
It won't be Clemson.
"As far as Touchdown Jesus," Swinney said, "[I'm] just excited to see it."