The Tar Heels aren’t exactly elite running the ball, ranking seventh in the ACC with 161.3 yards per game, so this could be a good matchup to watch for the Clemson defense. The Tigers are only sixth in the ACC in rushing defense, but they’re only allowing 116.0 yards per game. North Carolina’s leading rusher through its first three games has been quarterback Marquise Williams with 152 yards. T.J. Logan has 117 yards, followed by Elijah Hood and Romar Morris, while Morris leads with three touchdowns. Since giving up 328 rushing yards to Georgia in the opener (most of those coming in the final quarter after playing well for three quarters), Clemson has allowed 20 total rushing yards the past two games. The Tigers’ front could have another big performance considering the Tar Heels have two sophomores and a freshman listed on their depth chart on the offensive line this week, while the other two spots could go to either a sophomore or a junior.
NORTH CAROLINA PASS ATTACK VS CLEMSON PASS RUSH/SECONDARY
This is the real strength of the North Carolina offensive attack with Williams passing for 551 yards on 53-of-83 passing and the passing game ranking fifth in the conference with 264 yards per game (Mitch Trubisky has also completed 19-of-34 throws for 177 yards). Ryan Switzer is the leading receiver with 16 catches but for only 115 yards, while Bug Howard has 11 for 89. Mack Hollins is the big-play receiver with eight catches for 242 yards (an average of 30.3 yards per catch), while Quinsad Davis has nine catches. That’s a talented group, and North Carolina does have a high-flying offense, ranking second in the conference, averaging 42.7 points per game. But the Tigers are third in the conference in pass defense at 157.3 yards per game, and young cornerback Mackensie Alexander is on the verge of becoming a star. Martin Jenkins won’t play at the other corner spot, but Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett and Corey Crawford should be able to get enough pressure on the Tar Heels’ quarterbacks to make it a long night for them.
CLEMSON RUN GAME VS. NORTH CAROLINA FRONT SEVEN
Saturday might be the night for the Clemson ground game to break out. The Tigers are eighth in the conference with 152.3 rushing yards per game, and they have yet to have a really strong showing. But North Carolina has been awful against the run, allowing 222.7 rushing yards per game, which is last in the ACC. The Tar Heels were especially bad last week against East Carolina, allowing 343 yards on the ground. It’s time for someone out of the group of C.J. Davidson (27 carries-101 yards), Wayne Gallman (15-88), Adam Choice (18-83) or D.J. Howard (17-72) to have a showcase game. Or better yet, maybe all of them can.
CLEMSON PASS ATTACK VS. NORTH CAROLINA PASS RUSH/SECONDARY
As bad as North Carolina’s run defense is, its pass defense is just as bad, if not worse. The Tar Heels are surrendering 325.3 yards per game through the air (again last in the ACC). That sounds like a recipe for success for a true freshman (DeShaun Watson) making his first career start. Cole Stoudt wasn’t awful last week at Florida State, although his missed throw early to Jordan Leggett cost Clemson a sure touchdown and set things in motion for Watson to start this week. The freshman came in and played well against Florida State’s vaunted defense. He has almost as many yards (479) as Stoudt (486) on many fewer attempts – 29-of-41 to Stoudt’s 41-of-65. And Watson has four touchdown passes to just one for Stoudt. Again, Stoudt hasn’t been bad, and he likely will continue to get chances to play, but Watson is special. And he has a deep receiving group to throw to with seven players having at least five catches and 14 players catching at least one pass. Artavis Scott, Adam Humphries, Mike Williams and Charone Peake have combined for 37 of the Tigers’ 72 receptions.
Nick Weiler is a steady kicker for the Tar Heels, and he hasn’t missed a kick so far this season (3-of-3 on field goals and 14-of-14 on extra points), although his long field goal is only 23 yards. Clemson’s kicking game is up for grabs after last week’s disaster in Tallahassee, although the rest of the special teams were solid. Will it be Ammon Lakip, Bradley Pinion or Alex Spence handling the kicks this week? That’s the big question, but here’s something that can settle that easily: get into the end zone and don’t worry about field goals. Clemson is third in the conference in total offense (477.7 yards per game) but only sixth in scoring (37.0 points per game), and the Tigers are tied for ninth with 14 touchdowns.
Advantage: North Carolina
North Carolina is coming off a humiliating loss to East Carolina, giving up 70 points and more than 700 yards of offense. So either the Tar Heels get upset and come out fighting, or they are simply not very good. Clemson has to be a little humiliated itself after having a chance to beat the No. 1 team in the nation without its best player and dominating both lines of scrimmage. But the Tigers broke down fundamentally several times and handed the game to Florida State. So either they will be upset, or they will sulk about that loss and let it affect Saturday’s game. The dynamic of how the teams handle what happened last week is going to be intriguing to watch and could decide what takes place Saturday.
PREDICTION: Clemson 45, North Carolina 21