Preview of the ACC Championship Game Between #1 Clemson and #10 UNC

#1 Clemson is 12-0 and seeking its 15th ACC Title and a spot in the College Football Playoff on Saturday in Charlotte against #10 North Carolina.

Welcome to the ACC Championship Game edition of What We Are Hearing!

Everyone agrees that it wasn’t pretty in Columbia on Saturday, but as Dabo likes to say: “All we’ve gotta do is win by one point. I’ll take 15 wins by one point if I can.” You can’t argue with that statement, but I can also understand why many Clemson fans find it disconcerting that the Tigers didn’t steamroll their less talented rivals. There were a couple of times when it looked like they would do just that—Clemson twice held an 18-point lead in the second half. However, it seemed like each time it became a three-score cushion, the defense let its guard down and gave up big plays to keep South Carolina in the game. Equally disturbing to Clemson fans is the turnover trend we have seen in recent weeks. Clemson has now turned the ball over 3 times against Syracuse (once by Bryant at QB), 4 times against Wake (once by Bryant) and 3 times at South Carolina (plus another fumble by Artavis that was overturned). One of the fumbles on Saturday was on a routine exchange between Watson and Gallman. I don’t know how to explain it other than a lack of focus on ball security. If you stop worrying about the football like it’s your only child for a split second at this level, someone is going to knock it out of there. It’s confounding that they were able to take care of the football better in rainy conditions than perfectly dry, warm ones. Perhaps the wet conditions provided a constant reminder to be vigilant about ball security at all times. I have also wondered whether the team’s confidence in its ability to overcome turnovers has been a detriment and contributing factor to a certain carelessness or indifference about them. This team has remarkably won SIX games—half of their win total—despite LOSING the turnover margin. And 4 of those have been on the road! Dabo told his coaches that they will never see that happen again in the history of college football. It is a testament to the greatness and resilience of this team that they have been able to win on the road—fairly comfortably, I might add—with fewer possessions and big momentum swings from turnovers, and you have to wonder whether a byproduct of that has been somewhat of a nonchalance toward protecting the ball. No one would admit that, obviously, but it is clear that the team has been less focused lately when it comes to avoiding turnovers.

Sloppiness notwithstanding, thank goodness the Tigers were able to avoid the dreaded scenario—letting the Gamecocks pull the rug out from under us and depriving us of our dream season and national title hopes. This is the second time South Carolina has had that opportunity in their own stadium, and for the second time, they failed. I think one thing that fans lose sight of is the fact that South Carolina is not as bereft of talent as we thought they were, and they played above their talent level on Saturday. They knew it was their last game—of their careers for some—and it would have been something to tell their grandchildren if they could have knocked off a #1 Clemson team. And they came close to beating the likes of Florida, Tennessee and Texas A&M in the last month. Yes, they lost at home to The Citadel just before the Clemson game, but I submit that they were looking past that game, and The Citadel runs a triple-option offense that is tough for anyone to prepare for. In short, they are a team with capable players that was playing their final game with a home crowd and nothing to lose. That is a dangerous scenario for ANY team to face. Alabama struggled just as much with an inferior Auburn team, scoring a late touchdown to give them a 16-point win. As a final note of optimism, if you had your druthers, isn’t it better for Clemson to have gotten its sloppy, fumble-happy game out of its system BEFORE playing a hot UNC team for the ACC Championship? If the Tigers had blown South Carolina out of their stadium on Saturday, perhaps the players would be a little overconfident and headstrong this week leading up to the game in Charlotte. I can assure you that will not be the case now. If anything, UNC might be overconfident and Clemson will be anxious to prove to the world that it is unequivocally the #1 team in the nation.

Speaking of the big showdown in Charlotte, this will undoubtedly be the highest-rated ACC Championship Game to date and is the first sellout. The largest attendance previously was Clemson versus Virginia Tech in 2011. This game will feature two top-10 teams, including the unanimous #1, and it is an ACC record for combined wins (23) in a championship game. There have only been a handful of top-10 matchups in ACC history, and this one is for the highest stakes, so one could argue that this is the biggest game in ACC history. It seems appropriate, too, that this will be the first ACC Championship Game between two ACC charter members and that it will be held in a location almost equidistant from the two schools. Truly, the ACC could not have planned it better. Adding to the excitement and allure of the game, it will be ESPN’s #1 crew on the call: Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit, Heather Cox and Tom Rinaldi.

This will also be an enormous stage for Deshaun Watson to make a compelling claim for the Heisman Trophy because of the eyes that will be on this game. It will also be the last game the voters see prior to submitting their ballots to New York, and people have short memories. If Watson can put up video game numbers like he did in his first-ever start against the Heels last season, throwing a school-record 6 touchdowns, it could make the Heisman votes one of the closest in history. That being said, Bama's entire offense is Henry. He ran the ball 46 times against Auburn and will probably get the same against Florida. It will be hard for Watson to make up enough ground on Henry because of the stats he has been putting up for weeks and the fact that Henry plays for the esteemed Alabama. ESPN has been talking about Henry being the only SEC back other than Bo Jackson and Herschel Walker to run for 200 yards 4 times in a season. Watson is the beneficiary of a couple of factors, though. One, he would be the best player on the ONLY undefeated team, assuming Iowa loses. Two, he is the only quarterback in the running, and this has historically been a quarterback award. In fact, the past five winners have all been quarterbacks. On the other hand, perhaps the voters are looking for an excuse to break that trend so it could be a detriment. Unfortunately, the illogical and impractical tradition of awarding the Heisman Trophy prior to the end of the season might cost Clemson its first Heisman winner. If Clemson beats UNC and makes the College Football Playoff, Watson would potentially have two more mammoth stages on which to prove his worthiness—and possibly beat his main competitor head-to-head. Right now, Watson is the only quarterback in the nation with over 3,000 yards passing and 750 yards rushing. He is also the only Heisman candidate with an undefeated team, and he’s 15-0 in games he has started and finished. To my knowledge, no quarterback in FBS history has passed for 4,000 yards and rushed for 1,000, but Watson has a legitimate chance to do that if he makes it to the National Championship Game. Can you imagine if Watson becomes the first player in history to do that, goes 15-0 to win the national title and does not win the Heisman Trophy?? I can’t think of a bigger conundrum, and such an outcome might force the Heisman Trust to reconsider delaying the vote until after the CFP concludes.

Just to give you a quick recruiting update, 3-star safety Myles Dorn will make his announcement from his school on Friday. He is a talented player from Charlotte and a UNC legacy, but our intel is that Clemson has a very good chance at stealing him from the Heels. The timing of his announcement is intriguing, given that his top two schools will be battling in his hometown the next night for a spot in the CFP! Here is his PROFILE. Dorn was in Death Valley for the Florida State game last month. We will be on top of his announcement on Friday, so be sure to check in for that. Also, Clemson landed a big round ball commitment yesterday in shooting guard A.J. Oliver from Daniel High. You can see more info on his commitment HERE. Finally, be sure to check back with us tomorrow for Gary’s weekly Recruiting Radar! If you missed last week’s Radar, you can read it HERE.

Now, on to the ACC Championship Game….

 

MISCELLANEOUS

Players of the game against South Carolina were Deshaun Watson, Kevin Dodd and Jim Brown on special teams.....Saturday was win number 701 in Clemson history.....Clemson has the longest win streak in the nation at 15. With a win against UNC, Clemson will have a new school record for consecutive wins at 16....Dabo Swinney is 8-3 against top-10 teams.....Clemson is 64-3 under Dabo when entering the 4th quarter with a lead and 48-0 over the last 5 years.....Clemson has trailed for less than 45 minutes for the entire season, and there were only two games in which it trailed (BC and FSU). Clemson has not trailed once in the 4th quarter during its 15-game win streak....With a win Saturday, Clemson will have the second-winningest season in ACC history, behind FSU's 14-0 season in 2013....Saturday's game will be Dabo Swinney's 100th game as Head Coach.....This will be the first ACC Championship Game between charter members of the conference.....The combined 23 wins for Clemson and UNC is the most ever for an ACC Championship Game.....Clemson is 36-19-1 against UNC, dating back to 1897....Clemson has won 5 of the last 6 meetings, dating to 2002. The only loss during that time was a 21-16 score at Chapel Hill in 2010, when Nuk Hopkins was a true freshman....This is just the third time the teams have met as ranked teams. Clemson beat a #8 UNC team in 1981 en route to the National Title.....Deshaun Watson is 15-0 in games he has started and finished. His first career start was against UNC last season, and he set a Clemson record with 6 touchdown passes.....Shaq Lawson leads the nation in tackles-for-loss, with 20.5.....

Clemson players from the state of North Carolina:

Germone Hopper (Charlotte)

Eric Mac Lain

D.J. Reader

Joe Gore

Carlos Watkins

Tyrone Crowder

Andy Teasdall

Trevion Thompson

Van Smith

Jabril Robinson

Mark Fields

Jefferie Gibson

Korrin Wiggins

CLEMSON STATUS

Aside from the aforementioned fumbles on Saturday, the offense played pretty well. They went over 500 yards for the 8th consecutive game (4 games more than the previous school record), and both the Wayne Train and Watson each rushed for over 100 yards for the second time this season (FSU). Watson was 20-27 for 279 yards and one TD passing with no interceptions, and he rushed for a season-high 114 yards and 3 touchdowns. Although this wasn’t a huge stage, I think it’s safe to say that he had a few “Heisman highlights” in the game. His touchdown runs were sensational and exhibited his unique athleticism. As if that weren’t enough, the deep ball to Cain for a touchdown and the frozen-rope 3rd down pass to Trevion Thompson demonstrated his tremendous throwing ability and versatility. He can make every throw on the field and can also run with the best of them. Only a handful of quarterbacks have ever even reached the 3,000 and 1,000 plateaus in a season, and Watson has a chance to be the first ever with 4,000 and 1,000 if he can make it to the National Championship Game.

Again, aside from his fumble, Gallman was steady as usual, going over 100 yards for the 7th time this season and averaging 5.4 yards per carry. The offensive line did a great job, once again, in both run blocking and pass protection. They did not allow a single sack on Watson for the second consecutive game!

Deon Cain is one of the hottest receivers in the nation. He caught yet another bomb from Watson for a touchdown—his 5th consecutive game with a TD, breaking Sammy Watkins’s freshman record. You’re doing a good job any time you can break a record set by Sammy. Watson and Cain seem to have completely perfected that deep ball to the pylon. They have connected on that route several times in the last 6 games.

On Trevion Thompson’s huge 3rd down conversion in the 4th quarter, Watson told us that Thompson was not the first option, but before the play he told Watson to look his way because he would get it done. He essentially called his shot and backed it up. Thompson has had a lot of potential all season, but has not had many opportunities to catch the ball. You’d have to think that the big play on Saturday must give Watson a lot of confidence in him. It would be great to see Thompson start making more plays as we enter postseason play.

The defense was phenomenal in the first half, only allowing 3 points despite the turnovers by the offense. However, they gave up big play after big play in the second half. I honestly don’t know if it was a function of the starting unit running out of steam after 9 weeks without a bye, getting complacent with a 3-score lead or both, but clearly they weren’t the same in the second half. It seems like whenever the offense struggles and needs the defense to play lights out, that’s exactly what they do. We saw it early in the season at Louisville and again at the end of the Notre Dame game. Against FSU, after Cook’s touchdown run on the first play of the game, the defense shut FSU down for the rest of the game, allowing only 6 points in 59 minutes. However, they have consistently given up big chunk plays to teams when it looks as if the game is in hand. It happened at Syracuse—after a three-and-out and a fumble gave them a quick 14-0 lead in the first two minutes, they allowed Syracuse to stay within a couple of scores for the rest of the game. In fact, we haven’t seen the defense play with maximum intensity for 4 quarters on the road since the Miami game, which seems like a long time ago. Again, they haven’t needed to because the team has only trailed for a handful of minutes all season, and the games were never close for long at NC State, Syracuse or South Carolina, but it makes you wonder whether the defense can just turn it on and off like a switch. And even if they can, will taking a couple of series off cost them against a team like UNC that can score in a hurry? I’d rather not find out the answer to that question.

On the plus side, the defense had 4 sacks and 8 tackles-for-loss. B.J. Goodson had yet another monster game, with 3 TFL’s, including 1.5 sacks. I think it is fair to say that Goodson has really elevated his game and is playing at a level comparable to Stephone Anthony last season. Shaq Lawson got his TFL’s, as usual. He had 1.5 on Saturday, which put him at 20.5 for the season to lead the nation in that category. Dodd had another great game, with two forced fumbles and 2 TFL’s, including one sack. It’s great to see Adrian Baker emerge as a consistent backup in the secondary. His big first quarter interception in the red zone was almost identical to the one he had against FSU, which was equally as big.

Despite the perceived lackluster performance by this Clemson team on Saturday, there is something to be said for the fact that they have never lost control of a game. They have only been behind a TOTAL of 44 minutes the entire season, and they have not once—during the current 15-game win streak—trailed in the 4th quarter. That is dominance, folks—even if every final score isn’t as lopsided as we’d prefer.

 

Clemson is #14 in total offense (503 yards/game), #23 in passing offense (288.4 yds/game), #25 in rushing offense (214.1 yds/game) and #15 in scoring offense (37.9 points/game). Clemson is #7 in total defense (289 yds/game), #4 in pass defense (160.8 yds/game), #24 in rush defense (127.7 yds/game) and #17 in scoring defense (18.8 points/game). The Clemson defense also leads the nation in 3rd down conversions and three-and-outs, and they are #3 in tackles-for-loss.

Injury-wise, Clemson is at full strength, and it will be "all hands on deck" on Saturday. Ray-Ray McCloud should be back in action for the first time since the FSU game, when he suffered a sprained MCL in his knee. It is possible we could see him on kickoffs, but since he has been out for so long and had a dropped punt against Miami, I suspect we will not see him on punt returns. Ben Boulware played at South Carolina with a stinger in his left shoulder, but Dabo has said that he is fine as well. 

 

NORTH CAROLINA SYNOPSIS

Without a doubt, UNC is one of the hottest teams in the nation. It is the first time in school history they have won 11 straight games, and they have the third-longest winning streak in the nation behind Clemson and Iowa. They are undeniably one of the most explosive offensive teams in the nation. They only lost one player from their offense last year, and they are good up front. The Heels, much like the Tigers, have speed and skill all over the field. In last year’s meeting, they hit #3 Ryan Switzer for 2 big plays on jail-break screens, and they hit another big completion on a 3rd and 1 play action pass. Don’t ask me where Switzer was against South Carolina in the season opener, but you will know where he is on Saturday night, I can assure you. He and Marquise Williams seemed to be mentally off on some remote island together in that game against South Carolina because if they had played like they have been the past couple of months, they would have run the Gamecocks out of the stadium in Charlotte. Switzer isn’t the only WR who can hurt you. Dabo called 6’4, 210-pound Junior Mack Hollins (#13) the fastest player they’ve seen all year, saying “he can fly!” Hollins is not only big and fast, but he has great hands. He made a great catch in the end zone on us last season right over top of Mackensie Alexander, who was in pretty tight coverage. Senior Quinshad Davis (#14) is another physical specimen, at 6’4 and 220. Davis only has 4 touchdowns this season, compared to 10 as a sophomore two years ago, but that is because UNC has spread the ball around more this season. He is only 3 receptions behind Switzer for the team lead in receptions. Davis has told us in the past that if Clemson had recruited him harder, he would have committed to the Tigers, so the revenge factor could be extra motivation for him to have a big game on Saturday night. Switzer, Hollins and Davis each scored a touchdown in Death Valley last season.

It has been hard enough for teams to stop UNC’s passing game, but they complement it with a great running game, led by 6’0, 200-pound sophomore RB Elijah Hood (#34). If the Heels had given Hood the ball 2 or 3 more times (or maybe once more), they more than likely would have beaten the Gamecocks. He averaged over 11 yards per carry in the game, but the UNC coaches inexplicably kept him on the sideline on a critical drive at the end of the game, down 4 points. The Charlotte native was downright pleading to go in the game, and I believe if the coaches had listened to him the Heels would be undefeated right now. He had less than 15 carries in the entire game that day. Since then, the coaches have figured out that he needs to be on the field and touch the ball more, and he has responded with 1,280 yards and 16 touchdowns on the season, averaging 6.7 yards per carry. You can bet that he will be eager to have the game of his life on this stage in his hometown of Charlotte to get some redemption for the season-opening loss!

Of course, the straw that stirs the drink for Fedora’s potent offense is QB Marquise Williams. After being the object of copious preseason hype and expectations, Williams had the worst game of his career in the loss to South Carolina in Charlotte. His QBR in that game was an abysmal 18.6. He threw 3 interceptions, including two critical ones in the end zone, and had the Heels scored a field goal on just one of those possessions, they probably would have been in a position to win the game with a field goal at the end. Like Switzer, since then Williams has returned to last season’s form. He has completed 64.6% of his passes for 2,605 yards and 18 touchdowns, and he is second on the team in rushing, with 786 yards and 10 touchdowns. He has only thrown 8 interceptions on the season, and 3 of them were in that season-opening loss! Williams is a savvy veteran and will be difficult to sack. Outside of that aberrant game against South Carolina, he makes very good decisions with the football and won’t miss any busted coverages. It is always difficult to go against a quarterback who can beat you with his arm or his legs—particularly in the red zone, so this defense has its work cut out for it. Williams threw for 345 yards with 4 touchdown passes and one interception in that 50-35 loss at Clemson last season.

Defensively, the Heels are much improved under Defensive Coordinator Gene Chizik. He’s a finalist for the Broyles Award, along with Brent Venables, so this game will most likely eliminate one of the two candidates. UNC mixes up their coverages frequently between their 4-man and cover-2. They play a lot of press coverage on the outside and do a good job bringing their safeties up in run support. The biggest difference, though, between their defense last year and this year is that they are much more disciplined now and don’t allow as many big plays as the sieve we saw last season. They also create a lot of turnovers, with 15 interceptions and 9 fumble recoveries on the season. However, it is safe to say UNC has not faced an offense nearly as powerful and explosive as Clemson’s all season long. The closest comparison would probably be NC State, who scored 34 on the Heels last week with their third-string running back. The Heels are not great at rushing the passer--they only have 23 sacks on the season and 61 tackles-for-loss. Their best pass rusher is DE Mikey Bart (#45), who leads the team with 6.5 sacks. Backup DE Junior Gnonkonde is second on the team with 3.5 sacks. CB M.J. Stewart (#6) leads the team with 4 interceptions, and four players have 2 picks apiece. 

On special teams, look out for Ryan Switzer. He has returned 2 punts for touchdowns this season, and is second on the all-time list career punt return touchdowns. Fortunately, Clemson has already faced some of the best return men in the nation in games against Syracuse and NC State, so this will be nothing new. Teasdall has done a nice job of getting hang time on his punts and preventing opportunities for big returns. 

Statistically, UNC is #65 in total defense (395 yards/game), #107 in rush defense (208.3 yds/game), #19 in pass defense (186.7 yds/game) and #19 in scoring defense (20.8 points/game). So the numbers suggest the best way to attack them from a game plan standpoint is a heavy dose of the Wayne Train and Watson on quarterback keepers. That’s not to say we won’t attack them through the air early and often as well—again, they have yet to face a passing game like the one Watson and the Tigers will bring to Charlotte.

Offensively, UNC is obviously much better. They are #16 in total offense (496 yards/game), #33 in passing offense (266 yds/game), #18 in rushing offense (229.7 yds/game) and #11 in scoring offense (41.3 points/game). Interestingly, UNC is much better in points scored and points allowed than their yard totals would suggest. That tells me that they are good in the red zone on both sides, and we all know that the most important category is points in the final analysis.

Injury-wise, UNC is also in good shape. They haven't lost any players to injury since 11/4. 

 

PREDICTION

I have gone back and forth on this, watching as much tape on UNC as I could and considering how the two teams have played in recent weeks. I have tremendous respect for what UNC has accomplished this season because it is not easy to win 11 in a row—I don’t care what conference you play in or whether you have two FCS opponents on the schedule. Furthermore, I believe that winning—like losing—is contagious. Anyone who has played competitive sports knows that once you get on a streak, the momentum builds psychologically and you sometimes win games on sheer confidence. UNC has a ton of play-makers, a great, veteran QB, good special teams and they are well-coached. That is why they have won 11 in a row and have torched opponents like Miami and Duke. They started slow, with the poor performance against South Carolina, and they found themselves in 21-point hole against GT in Atlanta, but since then, they have played like a different team.

That being said, it cannot be ignored that the Heels have yet to be in a dog fight with a great team. In fact, they have yet to even play a great team. They won a close game at Pittsburgh, 26-19, and beat VT in Blacksburg a couple weeks ago in overtime, 30-27. Those are two decent defenses, but I don’t believe they are anywhere near as good as Clemson’s defense. Both Clemson and UNC have explosive offenses, but in my estimation Clemson has a big advantage defensively. Even in the games in which Clemson’s defense has had lapses of poor tackling, missed assignments and busted coverages, it has stiffened when it had to, and I think we will see this unit play with the 60-minute intensity that we saw early in the season against Miami and for most of the games against FSU and Notre Dame. Even if the game turns into a shootout, I’ll take our weapons over theirs. If Clemson is sloppy with the turnovers, as it has been in the past few games, this will be another stressful 4th quarter, but I believe we will finally see a focused team on both sides of the ball for 4 quarters because, after all, this one is for all the marbles. An ACC Championship and National Championship are on the line, and every player knows they can’t afford to make mistakes in this one. This is an explosive, high-tempo UNC offense, but it will be like looking in a mirror for this Clemson defense because they see it every day in practice. I also think the Clemson receivers will be able to exploit UNC's press coverage and beat them for some big plays down the field. They will bring their safeties up in an effort to stop Gallman and Watson from running the ball, and that will make them vulnerable on the back end.

Clemson puts it all together in Charlotte and cruises to a new school-record 16th consecutive win and a record 15 ACC Titles. The Tigers punch their ticket to Miami, and Deshaun Watson punches his ticket for New York. ACC once again stands for “Another Clemson Championship!”

The prowl toward the CFP and a 15th ACC Title in ’15 is complete. The prowl toward a second National Title begins….

 

 

CLEMSON  48    North Carolina  20


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