CLEMSON — Clemson (12-0) will look to once again prove all the doubters wrong on Saturday.
After being proclaimed the best team in the land for five consecutive weeks, they again find themselves as a favorite to be upset. This time, it will be North Carolina (11-1) playing David to Clemson’s Goliath.
The Tar Heels come into the ACC Championship having won 11 straight following their opening loss to South Carolina. Larry Fedora’s team will bring the best offense the Tigers have seen all year and are averaging 496 yards per game this year.
UNC quarterback Marquise Williams has shown several times throughout 2015 that he is second in the ACC only to Deshaun Watson, and he, like Watson, also has a quality running back behind him.
Elijah Hood and Marquise Williams have combined for over 2,000 rushing yards and 26 touchdowns this season, and that’s all on the ground. With Clemson’s troubles stopping the run of late, the Tar Heels pose a serious threat. Throw in a deep and talented group of receivers, and Williams can attack every area of the field on every play.
The good news for Clemson’s defense is the Tar Heels have put up most of their stats against lesser competition. Just a few weeks ago, Virginia Tech stopped the big play by playing top down defense and nearly pulled the upset. While Virginia Tech has a good defense, they’re nowhere near the same level as the Tigers.
Another factor playing in Clemson’s favor is how they’ve played against their best competition. The Tigers gave up some plays over the course of the year but when the game was on the line, Clemson came up with a stop. Notre Dame wasn’t able to do anything until the fourth quarter and, even with all their momentum, they came up short thanks to a monumental effort from Ben Boulware and company.
Defensively, the Tar Heels are a vastly improved unit from 2014. Still, they rank outside the top 50 in defense and they have had trouble stopping quality offenses. UNC gave up 34 to N.C. State, 31 to Duke, and 31 to Georgia Tech.
The common denominator in those games? The Tar Heels could not stop the run. If they can’t stop Wayne Gallman, it won’t matter what they do because Gallman will open the door for Deshaun Watson to take over.
Watson’s biggest challenge in this game will be facing one of the best secondary units he has seen this year. The Tar Heels are tied for 17th in the FBS with 15 interceptions on the season. If there has been one criticism of Watson this year, it has been his 10 interceptions which haven’t all necessarily come against the best pass defenses.
While both teams are in the top 15 nationally in third down conversion rate, the Tigers hold the decided advantage in third down defense. Clemson is best in the nation, stopping opponents on 76 percent of their third down attempts. The Tar Heels come in at 91st, only stopping opponents on 58 percent of third down attempts.
Reach James Inabinet at 803-635-4016.