What a difference a year makes. Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney found himself sweating on the hot seat in Death Valley after his Tigers posted a losing record (6-7) for the first time since 1999. At the root of the problem was a stagnant offense that finished 2010 ranked 88th in total offense and 86th in scoring offense. Exit Billy Napier, enter Gus Malzahn protégé Chad Morris as offensive coordinator. That coaching move, along with eight returning starters on offense, has Clemson ranked No. 8 nationally with a 7-0 record.
Morris's read-option scheme, directed by quarterback Tajh Boyd (145-of-232 passing, 2,012 yards, 19 TD, 3 INT), is second in the ACC and 15th nationally in total offense (487.1 ypg), blending an air and pass attack to net 38.0 points per game (21st nationally). Add in running back Andre Ellington (105.7 ypg, 7 TD) and rookie wide receiver Sammy Watkins (46 catches, 728 yards, 8 TD) and Clemson's offensive firepower has been explosive enough to overcome the departures of Da'Quan Bowers and Jarvis Jenkins along the defensive front. The Tigers have struggled at times defensively, ranking 57th overall (372.3 ypg), but a top-35 turnover margin (plus-.57) has helped Swinney's squad churn out a 15.1 points per game average margin of victory this season.
"He's not overwhelmed. From the day he got here, he's looked like we signed a free agent who's been playing three years at this level." -- Swinney on Watkins
"I just want to do all the right things the right way. Hopefully, I'll go to the NFL. I've got the talent, I just have to keep my head up and do what I've been doing." – Watkins
Matchups to Watch
Clemson WR Sammy Watkins vs. UNC's Secondary
When asked on Monday what stands out about Watkins, UNC head coach Everett Withers responded, "Speed kills."
"Obviously, Sammy Watkins is talented, fast, athletic, all those things," Withers said. "Maybe one of the best, if not the best, player in the country right now with all the things he can do."
Maryland found out firsthand on Saturday just how good the 6-foot-1, 200-pounder out of Fort Myers, Fla. is on the football field. Watkins broke C.J. Spiller's school record with 345 all-purpose yards — the fourth-best performance in Atlantic Coast Conference history — and earned league honors as receiver and rookie of the week.
Watkins already owns a pair of school freshman records (touchdowns, yards), stands three touchdowns away from Aaron Kelly's single-season record and needs just two more 100-yard games to add another record to his list. With his 98- and 70-yard kickoff returns against the Terrapins, this rookie has now delivered five plays of 60 yards or more during his first seven collegiate games.
Next up for Watkins and Co. is a Tar Heel secondary that has been sliced and diced to the tune of 247.7 yards per game (92nd nationally) and a 134.6 pass efficiency defense rating (81st). Defensive coordinator Art Kaufman was content to play his corners 10 yards off the line of scrimmage against Miami and Jacory Harris took advantage with a heavy dose of bubble screens and quick outs to chew up yardage.
Clemson's fast-paced offense – Morris aims to run 80-85 plays per game – will tax a fragile UNC secondary that has been forced to sit in zone coverage for too long at times as the front four works to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Withers indicated that its near impossible to attempt to isolate an experienced corner like Charles Brown on Watkins due to the spread aspect of Morris's scheme, meaning young corners like Tim Scott and Jabari Price will have to elevate their games and avoid any breakdowns in pass coverage.
UNC Offensive Coordinator John Shoop vs. Clemson Defensive Coordinator Kevin Steele
It would appear as though Morris's well-oiled offensive machine would have the upper hand on North Carolina's defense, meaning that the onus falls on Shoop to out scheme his counterpart to make sure the Tar Heels put enough points on the board to have a shot at winning.
That's easier said than done against a Tiger defense that ranks 57th nationally in total defense (372.3 ypg) and 42nd in the scoring defense (23.1 ppg). Defensive end Andre Branch (pictured right) leads Clemson with 46 tackles, 12 tackles for loss and eight sacks, while defensive tackle Brandon Thompson is pulling his own weight with 41 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks.
"They've got some guys upfront that look like first-round draft choices," Withers said.
The former UNC defensive coordinator provided some insight into Clemson's defense with reporters on Monday.
"They're basically a four-down front," Withers said. "They will get into what we call some under defense where they slide their front weak. They like to press out there on the corners and be aggressive out there. I think their corners are good players. I think they want to get up field – they're a lot like us. Get up the field, penetrate, rush the passer on third down. [It's] a little bit of a pro-style of defense."
North Carolina will counter with an offense that has been plagued by a lack of opportunities. While Clemson is averaging 77.4 plays per game, UNC is grinding out 60 per outing.
Senior wide receiver Dwight Jones (46 catches, 687 yards, 8 TD) indicated that it was difficult to get a feel of the game due to the lack of snaps.
"When you don't have the ball, you really can't get a feel for what the defense is running or how they're trying to play, so it's really difficult when you're not getting that many snaps," Jones said.
With a solid trio of quarterback Bryn Renner (128-of-170 passing, 1,593 yards, 14 TD, 6 INT), running back Gio Bernard (767 yards, 9 TD) and Jones, Shoop has enough weapons in his arsenal to put up crooked numbers on the scoreboard. The problem is that North Carolina has struggled to do that this season.
The Tar Heels rank 63rd nationally in total offense (392.6 ypg) and 66th in scoring offense (27.9 ppg).