Carolina won just its second ACC Coastal Division Title with an 11-1 season and an undefeated run in conference play. The Heels have turned that into a top ten ranking and a date with the number one team in the country on Saturday. The Heels will obviously face the best team they have played all season and if Carolina wants to win their first ACC title since 1980 then the Heels will need to play their best game of the year.
The Tigers are led by Heisman candidate Deshaun Watson. Watson has had a stellar season, throwing for 3223 yards on 261-371 passing (70.4%) with 27 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Watson has four receivers he throws to routinely in Artavis Scott, Deon Cain, Charone Peake and Jordan Leggett. These four all have at least 31 receptions while no one else on the team has more than 23. Of the group, Scott stands out as by far the number one option. Scott is an every down receiver who, with 77 catches, has more catches than the second place Tiger. Scott gets involved in the offense close to the line of scrimmage as he averages only 9.2 yards per catch. Watson looks to the rest of his receivers as deeper threats as Cain, Peake and Leggett all average at least 13.5 yards per catch. The Heels will need to trust single coverage on Scott and use their safeties as vertical help on the rest of the receiving corps.
The ground game is where Clemson really gets its offense going. The Tigers use Wayne Gallman as their workhorse running back. Gallman has 215 carries this season and has taken those touches for a very robust 5.3 yards per carry, 1145 yards and nine touchdowns. Watson acts as the second runner for the Tigers. Watson himself averages 5.4 yards per carry and has amassed 756 rushing yards on 139 carries with 9 touchdowns. Carolina's linebackers will be sorely tested in this game working to stop the run and contain Watson in the pocket. The Tigers run on 56.4% of their plays and against the Heels, the Tigers will most likely starve the Carolina offense of possessions by pounding the rock throughout this game. The Heels will have to figure out some way to stop Clemson on the ground if they want a shot at the Conference Title.
As much publicity as Clemson's offense gets, their defense might be their better unit. The defense is the #7 unit in the country in terms of yards per game, giving up only 288.5 per game. The Tigers are #24 against the run with 127.7 yards per game allowed, but most impressively, they are #4 against the pass allowing only 160.8 yards per game. However, Clemson's defense has not faced any offense anywhere near as good as the Heels. Clemson will be facing a team that can both run and pass effectively for only the second time all season. And unlike the Notre Dame game, this will not be played at home, in a monsoon and against a third string quarterback in his 3rd career start. Clemson's defense has been notably worse on the road rather than at home and has struggled against ranked teams. The Tigers give up 23.4 points per game on the road and that shoots up to 29.25 points per game when the annihilation of Miami is taken out. The Tigers have also played two ranked teams, Notre Dame and Florida State, and against those teams, the Tiger defense has allowed 6.29 yards per play. The Heels have to tools to challenge the Tigers, they will have to be used effectively if they want to have a shot at winning this game.
Keep Watson In The Pocket:
The defensive line has to play its best game of the season in this contest. Outside of playing strong run defense against Gallman but they will need to keep Watson in the pocket. The defensive ends need to avoid getting too far up field to limit potential scrambling lanes. The Heels need to create a pocket for Watson and then collapse it when they only rush four. If Watson can only throw the ball against Carolina then the Heels should be able to win this game. Clemson scored 24 points against Notre Dame and 23 against Florida State in two home games. If the Heels force Watson to throw exclusively, then the Heels should have a great shot at keeping the Tigers below 30 and a great shot at winning this game.
The Heels need to come out and score early. They can not afford to get down by multiple scores early since the Heels need to keep all their offensive options on the table. The Heels need to start strong and make the Tigers lose confidence early in this game. If the Heels can get a lead early then the tone of the game will change and the Heels can induce some mistakes from Clemson and potentially have opportunities to make the Tigers one dimensional as the game goes on.
Unleash Elijah Hood:
The Heels have refrained from just feeding Hood 25 carries per game. This is the time to stop that and let Hood feast on as many carries as he can handle. If the Heels can establish the run with Hood then the read option becomes available as well as more options in the passing game. If the Carolina offense can prove itself as being able to hang with the Tigers early then this game should open up and the Heels will have a real shot at the conference title.