Clemson vs. North Carolina: Who has the edge?

Clemson vs. North Carolina: Who has the edge?

Football

Clemson vs. North Carolina: Who has the edge?

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Clemson will look to wash the bitter taste of last week’s rivalry loss out of its collective mouth when the Tigers face North Carolina for an ACC championship Saturday at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. Kickoff is set for 8 p.m. The game will be televised by ESPN.

Clemson’s defense vs. UNC’s offense: The Tigers have had their share of struggles against some potent offenses this season, but this is a whole different animal for Clemson to deal with.

Led by a familiar face, the Tar Heels’ offense is one of the most explosive in the country, particularly through the air. UNC ranks in the top 15 nationally in yards and points, but the passing game is producing more than 320 yards per game. That’s eighth-best in the country.

Clemson recruited Drake Maye, a blue-chip quarterback a couple of years back who spurned the Tigers to stay in state. The Charlotte native is completing better than 67% of his passes, ranks fourth nationally in passing yards (3,847) and is one of just two FBS quarterbacks with at least 30 touchdown passes (35) that’s also thrown five interceptions or less. 

The Tigers will counter with one of the better defenses UNC has seen this season, particularly in the front seven. Clemson still ranks in the top 30 nationally in yards and points allowed. The Tigers also lead the ACC in tackles for loss and rank fourth in sacks, an indication of how active the defense has been within the first two levels.

It’s the back end that continues to be a problem, and if the front seven can’t get home with its assortment of blitzes and pressures when coordinator Wesley Goodwin dials them up, UNC has the capability of feasting through the air. Josh Downs is the most dangerous matchup for Clemson in that regard. The Tar Heels’ star receiver leads the ACC in receptions (83) and has caught 11 touchdown passes, tied for second-most in the league.

Against the top three passing attacks it’s seen thus far (Wake Forest, Florida State and South Carolina), Clemson has averaged allowing 317 yards through the air and 34.6 points. To make matters worse, with Malcolm Greene (injury) already done for the season and safety R.J. Mickens (targeting) unavailable for the first half of Saturday’s game, the secondary is a bit on the shorthanded side going into this one.

The Tigers need to be able to shut down UNC’s running game (160 yards per game) and get after Maye. Because if Clemson can’t apply consistent pressure to the Tar Heels’ passing game, the Tigers’ defense could be in for a long night. Advantage: UNC

Clemson’s offense vs. UNC’s defense: The downward trend for the Tigers’ passing game continued last week with its worst performance of the season. D.J. Uiagalelei completed just eight passes, and Clemson had a season-low 99 passing yards against South Carolina. Meanwhile, Beaux Collins, who’s been one of Clemson’s more consistent receivers, won’t be available for the rest of the season with his nagging shoulder injury.

The good news is the Tigers have been able to keep the ground game going. Clemson ran for 237 more yards against South Carolina, passing the 200-yard mark for the fourth time in five games. Will Shipley and Uiagalelei continue to be primary difference-makers on the ground as the duo combined for more than 180 rushing yards last week.

Yet Clemson hasn’t run the ball nearly as consistently on the road as it has inside the friendly confines of Memorial Stadium this season. The Tigers are averaging just 141 rushing yards in games played away from home, and they rushed for a season-low 90 in their most recent road game against Notre Dame early last month.

The Tigers will be going up against a UNC defense that’s produced nothing like its offense. Statistically, the Tar Heels are one of the worst defensive teams in America, ranking 103rd or worse in yards and points allowed. UNC is 116th nationally in pass defense at 273 yards allowed per game through the air, but is Clemson’s sporadic passing game capable of further exposing the Tar Heels’ secondary if UNC is able to contain the Tigers’ running game? 

That will be easier said than done for a Tar Heel defense allowing nearly 170 yards a game on the ground, but even when Clemson’s offense has been going well of late, the Tigers have had a hard time enjoying prosperity with a barrage of self-inflicted miscues. Clemson has committed 15 turnovers in the last five games, including three straight games with three giveaways. The last thing the Tigers can afford to do is give this UNC offense extra possessions. Advantage: Draw

Special teams: Even if they don’t end in points, it would behoove Clemson to at least pick up some first downs on its share of possessions so that it doesn’t spend most of the day backed up in its own territory like it did a week ago. Because UNC punter Ben Kiernan is also capable of flipping the field with an average of 46.7 yards on his boots this season, which include a 70-yarder.

UNC also uses Downs as a punt returner, which makes him twice as dangerous. He’s yet to take one to the house, but he’s averaging more than 14 yards per return. Freshman receiver Antonio Williams has a similar skill set for Clemson, though he’s lost a fumble in two of the last three games, including one on special teams.

If the game comes down to a walk-off field goal, Clemson may have the edge with B.T. Potter, who’s 17 of 20 on field goals this season. His last real miss (not counting that 59-yard attempt that came up short against Miami) was seven games ago against Boston College. UNC’s Noah Burnett is 12 of 16 on the season, but Potter’s got the longest make of the two at 52 yards. Advantage: Draw

Bottom line: This has all the makings of a shootout. Can Clemson rush for at least 200 yards? And, most importantly, can the Tigers avoid the costly mistake and win the turnover margin for a change? Clemson needs to do all of that in order to win this one. Based on the way things have gone over the last month, I’m not sure the Tigers do.

Prediction: UNC 34, Clemson 31

Dear Old Clemson has added the Tiger Sack Pack to our online store.  Save by getting the Two Pack of signed cards from two of the nation’s top defensive ends, Myles Murphy and Xavier Thomas.

Now there is a new way you can support Clemson student-athletes. Purchase collectibles from Dear Old Clemson and the proceeds with go to support Clemson student-athletes. 

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