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ACC Championship Preview: #10 UNC vs #1 Clemson

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ACC Championship - North Carolina vs Clemson - 8:00 PM - ABC

After years of frustration, NCAA penalties, missed opportunities and a scandal that won't end, the Tar Heels finally get a shot at the ACC Championship. All the Tar Heels have to do is knock off 12-0 and #1 ranked Clemson.

In some ways this season is setting up like a repeat of 1981 when UNC met Clemson in what would end up being  a de facto championship game. The Tar Heels had lost to South Carolina two weeks prior after reaching #3 in the AP Poll. Clemson came to Chapel Hill on November 7th as the #2 team in the country and knocked off the Tar Heels 10-8.  UNC ended up in the Gator Bowl and Clemson won the ACC and finished the season #1 in the polls.

34 years later the Tar Heels and Tigers face off again in a battle that decides the ACC title and has national championship implications. Clemson needs only a win to secure a spot in the College Football Playoff. A Tar Heel win would put UNC into the discussion for one of the four playoff spots but in all likelihood some help would be required to position UNC for selection.

While the stakes of winning the conference brings pressure for both teams, Clemson potentially feels it much more. The Tigers are the mortal lock for the playoffs and would go in as the #1 team. Clemson has the most to lose in this game while for UNC it is nearly all gravy at this point. Nearly. A shot at breaking a 35 year old conference title drought in football brings a different kind of pressure though probably not at the level Clemson is facing. In short, the Tar Heels might be the looser team on Saturday night even though the Tigers have played their share of tough, high stakes games this season.

As for the match-up, there is no question both offenses stand to produce with Clemson's defense being good enough to perhaps slow UNC down a tad. UNC's defense took a hit last week with the loss of safety Sam Smiley and the Tigers have enough of a rushing attack to gash the Tar Heel defense. Of particular concern is Deshaun Watson's legs, maybe even more so than his arm. UNC has had trouble all season with quarterbacks who can run. Even direct snaps to non-QBs versus South Carolina were problematic. If NC State's Jacoby Brissett can keep drives going with his leg then Watson could very well run all night on the Tar Heels.

UNC's best counter might be trying to win a shootout and forcing turnovers to at least "break" the Tiger serve. The key to that lies with the rushing attack. Clemson has been vulnerable multiple times this season against the run giving up over five yards per play three times in ACC play. Syracuse ran for 242 yards on the Tigers while NC State hit almost 200 yards. Along with Marquise WIlliams ability to run the ball, Elijah Hood has been in beast mode over the past three games with 8.4 yards per carry on 55 carries and five touchdowns. Over the past six games Hood has had at least 17 rushing attempts with 20 or more attempts three times. That is a notable shift from the first half of the season when it felt like Larry Fedora was holding him back. With UNC not due to play again until the end of December at the earliest, UNC probably will and should ride Hood as much as possible.

Ultimately UNC's chances come down to the play of Marquise Williams. When Williams is on as a passer, the Tar Heel offense becomes nearly unstoppable. Couple that with mistake free football and what you get is a well oiled machine. UNC's two most dominant games of the season, wins over Duke and Miami, Williams completed 67% of his passes for over 600 yards and five touchdowns. That version of Williams coupled with his ability to run the ball is an absolute necessity for UNC to pull the upset over Clemson.

In some ways, UNC is playing with house money and there would no shame in losing to #1 Clemson after winning 11 games and going 8-0 in ACC play.  Given UNC's history, reaching this level of success is never a guarantee. It's been 35 years since the last ACC title and while Fedora has the program rolling, for all anyone knows it could be 35 more before a chance like this comes up again. Or as best summed up by Larry Fedora UNC has "come too far to only come this far."

UNC 45 Clemson 35