It's been an exciting start to the 2019 season for the North Carolina football team. The Heels are 2-2 and each of their four games has been decided by one score. In the first two contests, UNC rallied late to emerge victorious, but in defeats to Wake Forest and Appalachian State, Carolina fell short.
Their opponent this Saturday hasn't had that type of fourth-quarter drama in a long time. Clemson has won their four games this year by a combined score of 169-40. The last time the defending national champs had a game that was up for grabs in the fourth quarter was when the Tigers rallied to beat Syracuse at Death Valley one full calendar year ago. Since that time, the only game that has been within two scores at the end was the victory over Texas A&M on Sept. 7 and that game was only a 14-point victory because the Aggies scored a touchdown with six seconds remaining.
Clemson and Carolina haven't played since the 2015 ACC Championship Game in which Clemson won 45-37.
Clemson at North Carolina
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 28 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: Clemson -27
When Clemson Has the Ball
When playing against the Clemson offense, the first priority is to limit the Tigers' big plays. Of course, that's easier said than done. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence loves to push the ball downfield and he has a stable of deep threats. Complicating matters for opposing defenses is the return to health of Amari Rodgers, a tough, veteran presence that can make the 10-yard reception on 3rd-and-nine.
The Clemson big plays can come in the running game, as well. Travis Etienne had a huge game in week one against Georgia Tech, but has been held in check, relatively speaking, over the past three weeks. But look for a pretty healthy dose of Etienne and backup Lyn-J Dixon against the still developing Carolina run defense.
Injuries have once again reared their ugly head in Chapel Hill and the secondary is an area that has been hit hard. Corner Patrice Rene is done for the year with an ACL tear and safety Myles Woolfolk is questionable for the game on Saturday. Up front, the status of nose man Jason Strowbridge is unclear as he is trying to recover from an ankle injury. Defending the vaunted Clemson attack is challenging enough, never mind trying to do so without possibly three of your team's best defenders.
When North Carolina Has the Ball
So far this season, North Carolina has run the ball pretty well and passed the ball pretty well. Sam Howell did throw his first two career interceptions last week against Appalachian State, but he also finished with 323 yards and three touchdowns. Trying to mount another comeback, offensive coordinator Phil Longo put more on the freshman's plate by asking him to throw 41 times in the game.
Unfortunately for the Heels' offense, the injuries are not limited to the defensive side of the ball. Leading receiver Dazz Newsome is questionable for Saturday and so is left tackle Charlie Heck, who did not play against Appalachian State. Both losses are huge, but not having the starting left tackle against Xavier Thomas and the other Clemson defenders is a big problem.
Clemson is tops in the ACC and seventh nationally in total defense and the Tigers once again know how to pressure the opposing quarterback. But even though Clemson is giving up less than 100 rushing yards per game, Charlotte had some quality gains on the ground last Saturday night. The 49ers finished with 153 rushing yards and running backs Benny LeMay and Aaron McAllister had five runs of 10 or more yards in the first half. North Carolina is not competing with Clemson by simply having their freshman quarterback sling it all over the field, so look for the Heels to try and get running backs Javonte Williams and Michael Carter going early.
North Carolina has faced three Power 5 opponents and one of the elite Group of 5 programs. But they — and Sam Howell in particular — have not seen anything like this. UNC has allowed 16 sacks in four games and the Clemson defense will be coming to get Carolina's young quarterback. Due to UNC's defensive injuries and, more importantly, a wide talent differential, Clemson will score points whenever they want. Carolina's run of close battles ends as Clemson comes in and puts the hammer down.
Prediction: Clemson 42, North Carolina 13
— Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, covering the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.