CHARLOTTE, N.C. – No. 10 North Carolina returns to Bank of America Stadium, the scene of its lone loss of 2015, for an opportunity to not only play for the program’s first ACC Championship since 1980, but also for a spot in the College Football Playoff.
It’s been three months since UNC (11-1) inexplicably dropped its season opener to South Carolina, 17-13, here in the Queen City. That loss now seems as distant as last season’s 6-7 record, a time representing a different period of Tar Heel football.
The South Carolina loss was a game that UNC has seemingly always lost, although on that warm September evening, it was apparent this group of Tar Heels had the pieces in place to challenge for a Coastal Division crown. Not only did Larry Fedora’s fourth team in Chapel Hill compete for the division, it reeled off a school-record 11 straight wins, posting an 8-0 ACC record for the first time in program history.
That’s why the Tar Heels are back at Bank of America, not in an effort to redeem their loss to South Carolina, but to prove just how long ago that defeat occurred, both in time and relevance.
No. 1 Clemson (12-0) is a 5.0-point favorite on Saturday night, a narrow spread between a team that has sat atop the College Football Playoff rankings since their debut and a team that has battled a current of skepticism in its slow climb into the top-10. The Tigers have won 15 straight games, the nation’s longest current winning streak, while the Tar Heels’ 11 straight represent the third-longest streak in the country.
The 23 combined wins mark the most for the participating teams in the ACC Championship Game’s 11-year existence.
“It's hard to win football games,” Fedora said this week. “To find a way week in and week out, whether we were at home or whether we were on the road, it's always difficult. To get your team to play at a high level on every Saturday is a difficult thing to do, and it's why I've been so proud of these guys because they have been so consistent throughout the season.”
UNC’s been able to win, and win big, due in part to an explosive offense averaging 41.3 points per game (11th nationally) and a new-look defense under first-year defensive coordinator Gene Chizik that’s allowing 20.8 points per game (T-19th), down 18.2 points per game from 2014.
More important to this season’s turnaround, however, has been a culture shift within a program that was close to collapsing upon itself this time last year. After a disconnect between players and coaches that leaked into the public realm last December, Fedora set about clearing the air and mending those tears by a variety of methods, whether it was the often talked about team meeting in January or his decision to occasionally join his players for lunch, a random act that had never previously occurred.
And so while UNC may have lost its season opener here in Charlotte, in this very stadium, it was already on a trajectory to return once more this season. The challenge is greater this time around.
The Tigers are the Tar Heels’ equal offensively, ranking 14th in total offense (502.5 ypg) and 15th in scoring offense (37.9). ACC Player of the Year Deshaun Watson does for Clemson what Marquise Williams does for UNC, pairing a quality arm with a physical running ability that stresses opposing defenses.
“Offensively, we really kind of mirror each other to be honest with you,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. “We're very similar in a lot of ways, both have a dynamic quarterback, and we've got excellent receivers and tight ends. So do they. We have excellent running backs. So do they. Good offensive line, so do they. So we're very similar in that regard from an offensive standpoint.”
Where the top-ranked team in the country has the edge is on the defensive side of the ball. The Tigers rank seventh in total defense (288.5 ypg) and 17th in scoring defense (18.8), while leading the nation in first downs defense (162).
“That's a great defense,” Williams said. “They hustle to the football, they rally, and everybody gets hats on the football and making plays. We're excited to get this opportunity to play. It's probably one of the best defenses in the country.”
Chizik’s defensive revival is largely based in a “bend-don’t break” philosophy that has allowed plenty of yards while limiting scoring. The Tar Heels have been susceptible to the run (208.3 ypg; 105th in rushing defense) and on third down (42.3 percent; 91st), yet have come up with crucial stops in key situations.
That UNC will enter the ACC Championship Game as only a slight underdog to the nation’s top team less than four years after NCAA sanctions and less than 12 months removed from a losing season is a testament to Fedora’s vision and drive in a headwind of adversity.
No football team in school history has won 12 games. This group of Tar Heels can become the first, here at Bank of America Stadium where their season started with a loss.