Series Record: Clemson leads, 36-19-1
Last Five Games: Clemson leads, 4-1
Getting to Know the Tigers
Clemson is undefeated, the runaway Atlantic Division champion and the No. 1 team in the country. Dabo Swinney’s team will be undoubtedly be the best that the Tar Heels have faced this season, and arguably the best they have played in the Larry Fedora era.
The Tigers are in the top-15 nationally in both total offense and defense. They are a complete team with a Heisman candidate in sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson running the show.
What’s most intriguing about this matchup is that the Tar Heels, based on numbers, are a formidable opponent for Clemson. UNC is four spots higher than Clemson in the national scoring offense rankings (41.3-37.9) and just three spots behind the Tigers in scoring defense (20.8-18.8).
The stakes for this game are obviously high. A win for Clemson seals up the program’s 15th ACC Championship and an appearance in the College Football Playoff. A win for North Carolina would bring the first ACC Championship in 35 years to Chapel Hill and keep UNC’s College Football Playoff hopes alive.
Watson is arguably the best quarterback in all of college football, and he will pose a threat to Gene Chizik’s defense with both his arm and his legs. Watson has thrown for 27 touchdowns (12th most in the country) against 10 interceptions this year, and has rushed for an additional nine scores. He is ninth in the nation in total offense, racking up more than 331 yards per game.
Sophomore receiver and first-team All-ACC member Artavis Scott has emerged this season as one of Watson’s favorite targets, catching 77 passes for 709 yards and four touchdowns. The team lost its best deep threat, junior receiver Mike Williams, to a neck injury in its season opener. Junior tight end Jordan Leggett is possibly Clemson’s greatest red zone threat: the 6-foot-5, 250-pounder has caught a team-high six touchdown passes.
On the ground, sophomore running back Wayne Gallman has led the Tigers. Gallman has churned out 1,145 rushing yards and nine touchdowns on 215 carries. He’s not a high-volume back, but he’s efficient, and someone who can step up as an unexpected star against UNC’s bend-but-don’t-break approach to the running game.
Of course, Gallman benefits from running behind one of the best offensive lines in the nation. The Tigers boast the 25th-best rushing offense in the country (214.1 ypg), and have allowed just 14 sacks this season (15th fewest in the country). The line gives Watson time to operate with a talented receiving corps, and gives Gallman room to make his carries count.
As good as Clemson’s offense is, the defense may be even better. The Tigers boast the second-best defense in the ACC statistically, trailing only a strong Boston College defensive unit.
Fifth-year senior linebacker B.J. Goodson has been an absolute force for Clemson in 2015. He’s collected 118 tackles (15 for a loss), 5.5 sacks and 17 pressures thus far. He’s joined in the linebacking corps by junior Ben Boulware, who has racked up 116 tackles (seven for a loss), 2.5 sacks and 18 pressures.
Up front, the Tar Heels will have to invest quite a bit in keeping junior defensive end Shaq Lawson out of the backfield. Lawson boasts a team high 20.5 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks. He’s joined on the first-team All-ACC squad by defensive tackle Carlos Watkins, Jr., who has complied 60 tackles.
In the secondary, sophomore cornerback Mackensie Alexander gives Clemson its third first-team All-ACC defender. He has five break-ups and 23 tackles this year, but that’s in part because of how good he is at defending the pass. He plays the role of Clemson’s shut-down corner.
If there is one flaw in the Clemson defense, it may be how it performs in the red zone. In 29 appearances in the red zone, the Tigers have given up 16 touchdowns and eight field goals. That means that teams have scored 83% of the time inside the 20. The last time Carolina made a trip to Charlotte, red zone turnovers were what ultimately lost the game for the Tar Heels.
“North Carolina is an impressive, impressive team. This is a complete football team. That’s why they’re the Coastal Champion. This is a great matchup. Their offense, they’re all back. They’ve got good depth. There really isn’t a weakness. They have a dynamic quarterback who can run and throw, they’re good up front, they’ve got speed and skill all over the field, so it’s a complete offense. No question about it They’ve got some playmakers. They scored 35 points on us last year. (Mack Hollins) is as fast a guy as we’ve seen all year. He can fly. He caught one over Mackensie Alexander in the end zone last year.” – Swinney
“This is the best offense we have faced this year. No doubt about it. And this is the best defense we’ve faced this year. This is the best football team we have faced. They’re the number one team in the country. And they’ve been that way for 10 weeks. Long time, right? As long as you guys can remember, so they’re really good. They’re really good.” – UNC head coach Larry Fedora
Match-Up to Watch
UNC QB Marquise Williams vs. Clemson’s Defense
North Carolina will not win this game without its star quarterback playing at his highest level. Clemson’s defense is one of the best in the country, and Williams will have to make smart decisions, and, most importantly, protect the football.
Late turnovers have made the Tar Heels sweat in games they should have put away earlier over the last two weeks. A pair of Williams fumbles allowed Virginia Tech to overcome a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit to force overtime and a red zone interception last week prevented UNC from embarrassing rival N.C. State. Clemson has forced 21 turnovers this season, and every possession in this game will count.
On top of that, Williams’s last trip to Charlotte resulted in a three-interception performance, one of the worst games of his UNC career, and a loss that has UNC currently outside of the College Football Playoff’s top-4. This game marks his chance at redemption in his hometown. North Carolina’s best player will have to be at his very best on Saturday to fulfill a personal dream in a stadium that produced nightmares for him just three months ago.