The Tar Heels are looking to avoid a second straight loss and a third consecutive slow start after scoring just 10 points combined in their last two first halves against Louisville and Miami, respectively. Clemson endured a similar issue to start the season – trailing Troy 16-13 at halftime and falling behind Wofford 21-13 with four minutes remaining before intermission – before becoming the first ACC team to beat three straight Top-25 opponents with victories over Auburn, Florida State and Virginia Tech.
The Tigers have had a long history of colossal choking once they get the ball rolling – see Clemson's 7-1 start in '06 and 1-4 record to close the season – but head coach Dabo Swinney has found a way this season to keep his team focused each and every week.
"If it's raining, you have to play well. If it's freezing, you have to play well. If it's noon, you have to play," Swinney said. "You step on the field and you have to be ready."
Clemson has lost two of its final three games in four of the past five years, but North Carolina is hoping to jumpstart that trend a little ahead of schedule. UNC interim head coach Everett Withers is in desperate need of win to avoid a 1-3 ACC record and to keep his name in the mix for the permanent head coaching job.
Swinney told reporters earlier this week that North Carolina would "be as good as any team we face."
"Offensively, they're very balanced and got a good running game, good passing game," Swinney said. "And defensively it's a bunch of NFL guys running around over there, and they've got a returner that leads this league. So just a complete football team."
The problem for the Tar Heels has been in maximizing that talent. Art Kaufman's defense boasts a handful of NFL talents in end Quinton Coples, tackle Tydreke Powell and linebacker Kevin Reddick, but a conservative scheme to protect the secondary has UNC ranked 50th nationally in total defense (356.1 tpg) and 81st in pass efficiency defense (134.6). The Tar Heels' scoring defense mark of 20.1 points per game stands 24th nationally, thanks in large part to their ability to hold opponents to just nine touchdowns in 23 red zone trips (12th overall).
All-ACC candidates Bryn Renner (128-for-170 passing, 1,593 yards, 14 TD, 6 INT), Dwight Jones (46 catches, 687 yards, 8 TD) and Gio Bernard (130 rushes, 767 yards, 9 TD) headline John Shoop's offense, but that unit as a whole ranks sixth in the league in rushing offense (159.9 ypg), seventh in both total offense (392.6 ypg) in passing offense (232.7) and eighth in both scoring offense (27.9 ppg) and sacks allowed (2.29).
North Carolina is averaging 6.54 yards per play, good for fourth in the ACC and .25 more per play than Clemson, but the Tigers rank 15th nationally in total offense (487.1). First-year offensive coordinator Chad Morris aims to run 80-85 plays a game and is currently averaging 77.4. UNC is averaging just 60 plays per game – second-worst in the ACC – due to the combination of third down efficiency (41.56, 54th nationally) and third down efficiency defense (40.6, 66th) difficulties.
The Tar Heels have prepared for Morris's up-tempo preferences as the defense has run 60-65 plays during each practice session against both full and pass huddles.
"We're going to have to play a complete ball game," Withers said. "Not turn it over, play good defense and not give up big plays because this offense is the No. 1 total offense in our league… They've got, I think, one of the best offenses in the country."
Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd (145-of-232 passing, 2,012 yards, 19 TD, 3 INT) is 13th in the nation in both passing efficiency (159.8) and total offense (309.9 ypg) working out of Morris's read-option scheme, while running back Andre Ellington (105.7 ypg, 7 TD) ranks fourth in the ACC in rushing yards.
True freshman wide receiver Sammy Watkins has stolen all of the headlines, however, with a stat line that includes 46 receptions, 728 passing yards, eight touchdowns and 350 return yards. The 6-foot-1, 200-pounder out of Fort Myers, Fla. earned National Player of the Week honors for his 345 all-purpose yards against Maryland last Saturday night.
North Carolina will have to continue its strong play in special teams return coverage (29th in kick return defense, 19.2 ypr; 10th in punt return defense, 2.2 ypr) to contain Watkins.
"We've got to win the kicking game," Withers said. "If we win the kicking game and win one other phase. We always talk about there being three phases, so we've got to win the kicking game and one other phase.
"Then we've got to get some big plays on them. We've got to make some plays down the field."
Clemson balances out those two explosive phases with a defense that ranks 42nd in scoring (23.1) and 57th in total defense (372.3 ypg).
A victory on Saturday would make the Tar Heels bowl eligible for the fourth consecutive season while also equaling the highest-ranked opponent that UNC has defeated on the road in school history.