Oh, how things changed in a span of two weeks. When the College Football Playoff Rankings were released on Nov. 15, Clemson was sitting at No. 9 and North Carolina was slotted in at 13. The two were a combined 18-2 and a juicy ACC Football Championship Game seemed to be in the cards.
The next week North Carolina suffered an inexplicable loss to Georgia Tech and then followed it up by dropping their rivalry game to NC State the day after Thanksgiving. While those losses hurt the ACC, it was South Carolina's victory over Clemson last Saturday that stuck a fork in the conference's playoff hopes.
So an Orange Bowl bid is what's at stake along with the honor of being the ACC champ when the Tigers (10-2, 8-0 ACC) and the Tar Heels (9-3, 6-2) battle in Charlotte on Saturday night. Clemson had won the league six straight years before finishing behind Wake Forest in the Atlantic last season. North Carolina hasn't claimed the conference title since 1980.
ACC Football Championship Game: No. 9 Clemson vs. No. 23 North Carolina
When Clemson Has the Ball
We've come full circle. At the start of the year, the discussion around whether DJ Uiagalelei or Cade Klubnik should be the starting quarterback at Clemson was hot and heavy. After a solid start, Uiagalelei solidified his status and quieted the discussion. But his play down the stretch, especially his dismal 8-for-29 passing performance against the Gamecocks, has reignited the controversy in a big way.
Getting the right answer at the quarterback position is imperative because the Tigers lost this past weekend despite rushing for 237 yards. Will Shipley and Phil Mafah are outstanding ball carriers and will be difficult to stop, especially for a North Carolina defense that has had problems for much of the season. But Clemson needs to find a balance. The Tigers don't have the receiving threats that they have had in years past, but Antonio Williams and a pair of tight ends are viable threats that a quality passer can utilize. Unfortunately, Beaux Collins, who leads the team with five touchdown catches, is not available after re-aggravating a shoulder injury last week.
The battle up front will be very important. Over the past two weeks, despite losing both games, the Tar Heels' defense had two solid showings. NC State is not a team that possesses a strong ground game, but the Heels held them to 59 rushing yards, the Wolfpack's lowest rushing total of the season. Yes, Clemson's ground game will be a different challenge, but at least Carolina's defense comes into this game with some positive momentum when it comes to stopping the run.
Where the Heels' defense struggled last week was defending the pass and it started with the lack of pressure. Carolina had only one sack and just two other tackles for lost yardage. With Uiagalelei struggling, or if the freshman Klubnik is taking snaps, making the quarterback uncomfortable will go a long way toward a UNC win. There aren't many dynamic playmakers in the Carolina front seven, but that group has to get into the backfield.
When North Carolina Has the Ball
The most frustrating part of the past two weeks for North Carolina is that the offense – and more specifically Drake Maye, Josh Downs, and the passing game – has not been up to par and their lack of production played a huge role in the consecutive losses. In the first 10 games of the season, Maye threw 34 touchdown passes against just three interceptions. But against Georgia Tech and NC State, the one-time Heisman contender had just one TD toss and threw two picks. And Downs, who was on an incredible run going into the Georgia Tech game, has nine catches for 82 yards the past two games, along with a big drop on what would have been a huge touchdown in the close loss to the Yellow Jackets.
However, it's too easy to just point fingers at Maye and Downs as the problems are obviously much bigger than just the two star players. The offensive line has been inconsistent all year and the three teams that have beaten the Heels have been more physical than the UNC blockers. Georgia Tech sacked Maye six times and though NC State only brought him down twice, the Pack made his day difficult. The limitations of the offensive line also have been a primary reason why the running game has been spotty at best, despite the best efforts of Elijah Green in recent weeks.
And if Georgia Tech and NC State pushed around the Carolina front, it stands to reason that the Clemson defense will have some success as well. Though the Tigers have not been as dominant as many thought they'd be, they are still the most physically talented defensive front seven in the ACC. They are second in the conference against the run and have given up just 84 yards on the ground in the past two games combined.
This past weekend, it was Spencer Rattler and the Gamecock passing game that carved up Clemson. Considering what the Carolina strength has been for the vast majority of the season, that could be good news for the Heels. But that offensive line will have to keep Myles Murphy and the rest of the Tigers' rushers out of Maye's face. If they can do that, North Carolina could find some success, as the Clemson secondary can be picked on. And it's not just South Carolina that has exposed the Tigers, as Clemson ranks ninth in the league in passing yards allowed per game (226.7).
This contest has an odd feeling for a conference championship game. It's not a situation where you wonder which team is hotter but rather which team is sputtering the least and which one is more motivated. In some ways, the motivation factor favors the Tar Heels as the ACC title is never Clemson's ultimate goal and Carolina hasn't won the league crown in 42 years. That being said, if North Carolina can't block Clemson, it will be another long game for Maye and the offense. There are no reasons to believe that the Heels' offensive line is up to the task and the Tigers should be able to make plenty of plays behind the line of scrimmage. Also, Shipley should once again put up big numbers and while Clemson cannot count on Uiagalelei (or Klubnik) throwing the ball, their offense should be able to score some against this Carolina D. In a tight contest, kicker B.T. Potter is the difference as Clemson returns to the top of the ACC.
Prediction: Clemson 27, North Carolina 24
Podcast: Complete Week 14 Preview, Predictions & Picks Against the Spread
– Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, focusing on the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.
*Price as of publication.