In last year’s game in Chapel Hill, North Carolina gave Clemson its only challenge of the regular season.
The Tar Heels had the Tigers on the ropes, going for the go-ahead two-point conversion with less than two minutes to play in the game. However, Clemson defenders Xavier Thomas and James Skalski tracked UNC quarterback Sam Howell down and threw him short of the goal line to secure the Tigers’ 21-20 victory.
Clemson went on to destroy everyone else in the regular season and Virginia in the ACC Championship Game before advancing to the 2020 College Football Playoff National Championship.
But will the Tigers dominate the ACC like it has the last five seasons or will the Tar Heels step up and challenge them? One Fox Sports One network analyst says North Carolina can be that team this year.
“I know Clemson is still head-and-shoulders above everybody else in this conference. Much like Ohio State in the Big Ten, they just have better players right now,” former Heisman Trophy winner and Southern Cal quarterback Matt Leinart said on Fox’s Big Noon Kickoff special.
The Tar Heels don’t play Clemson this coming year, but the two could meet in the ACC Championship Game. Besides Howell, the 2019 ACC Rookie of the Year, UNC also returns nine other starters on offense, a unit that was second to the Tigers in scoring offense at 33.1 points per game. It also returns seven starters on defense for head coach Mack Brown.
“Look at last year and you have a star quarterback coming back who is phenomenal, and the sky is the limit for Sam Howell,” Leinart said. “You have a great receiving corps coming back… You have a lot of experience.”
Though North Carolina went 7-6 last season, it lost all six games by a touchdown or less. Besides losing to Clemson by one point, the Tar Heels lost in overtime at Pittsburgh and at Virginia Tech. They won their last three games of the year, including a 55-13 win over Temple in the Military Bowl.
“They had a chance to beat Clemson. They’re close. We all know it just takes a little shift,” Leinart said. “I don’t know how this offseason may affect North Carolina. But with Coach Brown, his championship pedigree, quarterback, the pieces they have back, I certainly believe they can make a run in the ACC and potentially challenge Clemson in the championship game.”
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