CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) — An undefeated start, a sold-out stadium and much of the college football world locked on Clemson: That combination has not worked out in recent years for the 12th-ranked Tigers.
Too often the past few seasons, Clemson (3-0) has seen its chances for bigger things halted in marquee games. It happened in 2011 when the 8-0 Tigers were routed by Georgia Tech, 31-17. Then again, two years later when 6-0 Clemson was run out of Death Valley by Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston and Florida State, 51-14.
Clemson's latest opportunity to mark itself a playoff contender comes Saturday night against No. 6 Notre Dame (4-0).
"I've been around since probably my (high school) freshman year," Tigers quarterback Deshaun Watson said. "From what I've been seeing, we've never kind of had that respect or gotten over that hump. I really don't care about the polls. We're going to do what we've got to do."
It figures to be another mega-watt week on Clemson's campus.
ESPN College GameDay will broadcast from the school for the first time since the Florida State defeat in 2013. Tickets are nearly impossible to get yet requests continue to pour in. Co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said he has received so many inquiries he's ceded those duties to his wife — who's eight-and-half months pregnant and due to have the couple's second child in early October.
"She got a little bit of pub, so I guess I can throw a little responsibility on her plate," Elliott said, laughing.
Elliott said the coaches will not talk much about the Florida State defeat, in part because 17 of the Tigers' 22 starters for Saturday's game were on the sidelines for that loss.
"We're just focusing on the opportunity that we have and making sure that we have our guys prepared to execute at a high level," Elliott said. "And letting them understand that regardless of the atmosphere, it's about Clemson and how we play."
Clemson was the preseason picked to win the Atlantic Coast Conference title with Watson the favorite for player of the year. While Tigers are 3-0 for the fourth time in five years, the showing so far has left many questions with unsatisfying or incomplete answers.
Clemson's defense is ranked ninth nationally in allowing 260 yards a game — same as a year ago when it led the country — but has not yet been truly tested in wins over FCS opponent Wofford, Appalachian State and Louisville.
The Tigers' 1,000-yard receiver Mike Williams broke a bone in his neck in the season's first quarter and hasn't played since, robbing Watson of his primary deep threat. The result is many of Watson's completions have been short tosses as opponents take away the long ball.
And given the chance to shine on national TV in a Thursday night game at Louisville, Heisman Trophy contender Watson played a solid yet unspectacular game in the Tigers 20-17 victory when many fans were waiting for the sophomore to put up eye-popping numbers.
Elliott thinks the drama will bring out Watson's best. "He came to Clemson to compete against the biggest programs on the biggest stage," he said. "I'm pretty sure he'll be excited and ready."
Notre Dame comes into Clemson off a 62-27 win over Massachusetts. The contest, though, was another game where new quarterback DeShone Kizer and running back, C.J. Prosise, could grow in the offense and prove the team would not slow down with injuries to starters in quarterback Malik Zaire and tailback Tarean Folston.
Their play, coach Brian Kelly said, helps the rest of the offense readjust instead of focusing on injured starters.
"As long as the entire team knows that each player is valued for who they are, there's initial disappointment, but you don't lose morale," Kelly said.
Clemson safety Jayron Kearse said Notre Dame's receivers, particularly Will Fuller, have been a bit mouthy this week, trash-Tweeting on social media. The Tigers, Kearse said, are ready to shut down the Irish.
"They obviously don't know what we do down here in Death Valley," Kearse said.