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ACC Championship Game Preview and Prediction: North Carolina vs. Clemson

Deshaun Watson

Deshaun Watson

Is this a de-facto College Football Playoff quarterfinal matchup? Larry Fedora would like to think so.

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In a Sunday press conference, the Tar Heels head coach said that he believes that No. 10 North Carolina should be one of the four teams selected for the Playoff should they beat undefeated, top-ranked Clemson. While that will be determined Sunday afternoon, it does provide an extra layer of intrigue as Saturday’s ACC Championship Game approaches.

Related: Stanford Still Hoping for Playoff, is North Carolina Hopeless?

The Tigers come in riding a 15-game winning streak that dates back to Nov. 15, 2014 when they lost to Georgia Tech. Clemson has rolled through most of its 2015 opponents, but archrival South Carolina gave the Tigers more of a game than anyone expected this past weekend.

South Carolina has played a large role in North Carolina’s season too. The Heels opened up their campaign by losing to the eventual 3-9 Gamecocks. Since that defeat, UNC has rattled off 11 consecutive victories and has gotten better as the season has progressed.

The last meeting between the two schools was Sept. 24, 2014 and Clemson came away with a 50-35 victory.

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North Carolina vs. Clemson (Charlotte, N.C.)

Kickoff: 8 p.m. ET (Saturday)


Spread: Clemson -6

Three Things to Watch

1. Clemson Turnovers

Clemson has been a pretty complete team this season and it is why the Tigers are currently No. 1 in the College Football Playoff rankings. However, they have had a turnover problem. They are minus-three (-3) in turnover margin and much of that is because they have given the ball away 24 times on the year. In recent weeks, the issue has gotten worse, as Clemson has 10 giveaways in the past three games. On the other side, North Carolina is plus-nine (+9) in turnover margin largely because the Tar Heels have 24 takeaways. Clemson survived its mistakes against Syracuse, Wake Forest and South Carolina, but giving the North Carolina offense extra chances is something that should be avoided.

2. Defending the Quarterback Run

The two signal-callers have different physical builds, but they are similar in so many ways. They both can throw and they both can run. Completely stopping either player from passing will be a challenge, though the Heels and the Tigers both have pass defenses ranked in the top 20 in the country. But while each team focuses on containing the opposing aerial attack, the potential for big plays on the ground also exists for both quarterbacks. Clemson’s Deshaun Watson has rushed for 756 yards and nine touchdowns on the season. This past Saturday, the sophomore from Gainesville, Ga., ran for 114 yards and three scores. UNC’s Marquise Williams has put up similar numbers, rushing for 786 yards and 10 touchdowns. Both players also have 1,000-yard backs that they can hand off to and they are most dangerous when throwing to a number of different receivers. But if things break down, or the situation dictates, Watson and Williams can burn opponents on their own.

3. Limiting Big Plays

The Tar Heels and the Tigers both like to move fast and both can pick up big chunks of yards in a single play. North Carolina ranks fifth in the nation with 83 plays from scrimmage of 20-plus yards. Clemson is No. 15 in that category with 75. Many of North Carolina’s big chunk plays have come in the running game and Clemson has allowed eight running plays of 40 yards or longer, which ranks 109th in the country. The North Carolina defense is pretty consistent in limiting big plays, but Clemson has the capability of being able to strike at anytime against anyone.

Final Analysis

When the initial College Football Playoff rankings came out Nov. 3, Clemson was perched atop the list and, despite having a 7-1 record, North Carolina was nowhere to be found. Most expected this ACC Championship Game matchup to come to fruition, but at that time no one would have given the Tar Heels much of a chance. Things are a bit different now. North Carolina’s offense has scored more than 45 points in three of the last four games and there are some wondering if Clemson peaked around the end of October. Whether or not this is a Playoff play-in game for North Carolina can be debated, but that is exactly what it is for the Tigers. While the Gene Chizik-led Tar Heel defense has improved greatly from 2014, it is still a unit that gave up 34 points to NC State, 31 to Duke, and 27 to a Virginia Tech offense that struggled most of the year. Clemson has known for weeks that the biggest obstacle in its path to the Playoff is this game. The Tigers will be efficient on offense, taking care of the ball and converting their opportunities. It will be a war and Carolina will score points. The Tigers will just score more.

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Prediction: Clemson 41, North Carolina 34

— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.