SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Marcus Freeman understands this has not been a typical season for Clemson.
The Notre Dame coach sees the unranked Tigers (4-4) teetering on the possibility of missing the postseason for the first time since 1998, and two-time national champion coach Dabo Swinney has suddenly come under fire.
Yet Freeman believes not much has actually changed. He still considers Clemson one of college football’s premier programs and views Saturday’s matchup against the 12th-ranked Fighting Irish as this weekend’s best — and he’s making sure his players get the message.
“I want to make sure everybody in our program understands don’t let the 4-4 record reflect the team,” Freeman said. “Just watch the film. They are as talented as any team we’ll face this year across the board. We have to understand that.”
The numbers back up Freeman’s assertion. Predictive models like ESPN’s SP+ and Football Power Index rate the Tigers as a top-25 program even though poll voters do not.
FanDuel Sportsbooks also expects a close game, making the Irish 2 1/2-point favorites on the road. Clemson also ranks No.6 in total defense, limiting opponents to 266.9 yards per game.
“I don’t know how you can look at them and say they’re not a really good football team,” quarterback Sam Hartman said. “Their front seven is always going to be one of the best in college football. They’ve got some of the most prolific pass rushers in college football. Their secondary is incredible.”
Hartman should know after going 0-4 against the Tigers during his career at Wake Forest.
And despite the consternation, Clemson could easily be 7-1 or even unbeaten. The losses to No. 4 Florida State and Miami came in overtime, the Tigers outgained both Duke and North Carolina State in the other two losses, and the only home loss came against the undefeated Seminoles.
The problem: Turnovers. Clemson has 15 giveaways, including 10 lost fumbles, which opponents have converted into 63 points.
“The first game of the year versus Duke, the turnovers in the red zone were a unique situation,” Freeman said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a game like that. Then last week, if you just read the stats, they’d tell you they probably should have won that game. I think probably the turnovers ended up costing them that game.”
Fans are dismayed, though. One even called Swinney’s radio show and asked the coach why he deserves a $10.8 million annual salary as the team flounders.
“That’s second in college football, if I’m not mistaken,” the fan said. “I’m curious why that salary has led to a 4-4 (record)?”
There is also plenty at stake for the Irish (7-2, No. 15).
Freeman and Notre Dame are riding high after winning their previous two home games by a total of 79 points, including a 28-point rout over then No. 10 Southern California. Another win would get them closer to a New Year’s Six bowl game. With only dates against Wake Forest (4-4) and Stanford (2-6) left after Saturday, the Irish could climb back into the top 10.
But Notre Dame hasn’t been at its best on the road. The Irish drew 12 penalties in a comeback win at Duke and were never close in the following week’s 33-20 loss at Louisville. And playing at “Death Valley” remains as daunting as ever, with road teams going just 3-55 there since 2015.
“I view Clemson as one of the premier programs in college football,” Freeman said. “What coach Swinney has done with that program over the course of his time there has been second to no other program in college football. It’s extremely impressive. They’ve recruited at a high level, they have an unbelievable culture and they play at a high level.”
AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll