Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly and his players understand the magnitude of facing No. 1 Clemson on Saturday, but the game takes on different meaning with the Fighting Irish playing as an ACC member this season.
"This game, it's not the end-all for us," Kelly said Monday. "We could win this game, but you could lose to [Boston College next week], and this doesn't mean anything. We're still in pursuit of a conference championship. ... It's about consistency in performance, which we're well on our way to checking that box. We've shown an incredible consistency as a football team of winning week in and week out. Look, you want to win these games, there's no doubt, but we can't be overly emotional about this football game and lose sight of the fact that we've got five more games to play.
"We can't empty the tank and say, 'Hey, we've beat Clemson, we've arrived.' No, we haven't."
The fourth-ranked Irish (6-0) face Clemson (7-0) for the first time since the College Football Playoff semifinals in 2018, when Clemson won 30-3 in the Cotton Bowl. After the game, Kelly said he felt Notre Dame was still closing the talent gap with the nation's elite. Kelly on Monday said he stood by that comment, noting how few brought up a gap between Clemson and Alabama when the Tigers went on to beat the Tide 44-16 to win the national title.
Kelly has spent the past few weeks challenging Notre Dame to "raise the compete level" in anticipation of bigger games. But he doesn't want the Irish to peak on Saturday and then have a letdown. Kelly on Monday several times noted that Notre Dame could see Clemson again in the ACC championship game. Tigers star quarterback Trevor Lawrence, sidelined for this week's game after his COVID-19 diagnosis, could be eligible for a potential league championship game rematch against Notre Dame.
Freshman D.J. Uiagalelei will make his second straight start in place of Lawrence after passing for 342 yards and two touchdowns in Clemson's come-from-behind win last week over Boston College.
"What I'm saying is that this is a long haul," Kelly said. "This isn't a destination point for us this weekend. We've got many more games. We're playing for a conference championship, so it's not like when we were an independent and you need to get these games to validate your place in the College Football Playoff. We're looking at winning the conference championship, and we have five conference games [left], and they all count as one.
"I know this is the No. 1 team in the country, our guys know it's the No. 1 team in the country. They're excited about that opportunity, but it counts as one."