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UNC Football: Clemson Tigers Game Preview

The Tar Heels will look to pull off the colossal upset when the number one ranked Clemson Tigers come to town this weekend.

NCAA Football: Appalachian State at North Carolina James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

“We want to be the Clemson of the Coastal”, said North Carolina head coach Mack Brown during his Monday interview with the media. Such a sentiment doesn’t really need to be said, because it is kind of understood. Coach Mack Brown wants to put his team on the map for the same kind of dominance that Clemson has seen under Dabo Swinney.

Anybody who even remotely follows college football knows that Clemson has shoehorned their way into the conversation of being the best college football program along with Alabama. Two national titles in three years, a complete dominance of the ACC, and now they have even more faces taking over the NFL. If Alabama is the best program in the country, that makes Clemson 1A.

That is what makes this game so monumental for the Tar Heels’ program. Forget the fact that they are 2-2 on the season, the Tar Heels will be looking to pull off a huge upset and give Mack Brown his first signature win in his second stint with the program. But it’s not going to come easy.

Date/Time: Saturday, 9/28, 3:30
Channel: ABC
Line: Clemson -27, O/U 60

What’s At Stake?

For Clemson, it’s pretty simple: They are the only ACC team that currently has a legitimate shot at the college football playoff. Next closest would be Virginia, but a lot would have to go right for the Cavaliers to make a run to represent the ACC.

This is simply just the spot that Clemson now holds in college football. They are perennial playoff contenders, but with the lack of good teams in the conference this year, one loss is really all it will take to likely eliminate the Tigers from repeating as national champions. Every week they take the field, their shot at a national title is at stake.

For the Tar Heels, what’s at stake all depends on if you are an optimist or a pessimist. The Tar Heels can still win the Coastal division. That’s just a fact (no matter how unlikely it is). But if you are a pessimist, you will point out how this team struggled against Appalachian State, looked non-competitive for three quarters against Wake Forest, and sneaked out two wins over Miami and South Carolina.

I choose to be the optimist and think that this team could easily get healthy and make a run at the Coastal division title. Even if the Tar Heels can’t win the Coastal, a bowl game would be a nice start for Mack Brown, especially seeing how far they have come since last year. No better way to start that than beating Clemson on Saturday.

Key Matchup

Off the top, one of the most crucial matchups of the game will be North Carolina’s injury decimated offensive line facing off against Clemson’s defensive line. The Tigers’ defensive line is nowhere near the one they had last year when they had three first-round draft picks and a fourth-rounder as well.

Xavier Thomas is where the Clemson pass-rush begins. He is an uber-athletic sophomore who was one of the highest ranked recruits in his class. He will come off the edge for the Tigers, leaving a handful for the makeshift offensive line that could still be without starting left tackle Charlie Heck.

When healthy, the Tar Heels’ offensive line looked really good. They protected Sam Howell well in the opening game, and even during the Miami game when Nick Polino was in the game. But with a true freshman quarterback against one of the better defensive lines in the country, it could be a struggle for the Heels.

However, should the Tar Heels’ offensive line give Howell time to throw, it could give them a decent chance to win. When given time, the freshman QB looks more like an upperclassman. Obviously the coaches will want to set the tone with the running game, but we’ve seen Sam Howell take over games with his arm.

If North Carolina can win the battle in the offensive trenches, it could give them a shot to hang around late with the Tigers.

Other Things to Look For

It feels weird waiting this long into a game preview to mention arguably the best quarterback in the country, but here we are. Trevor Lawrence is a stud. He’s got good great hair, which I for one am jealous of.

But Lawrence hasn't been nearly as solid so far this year as he was last year. He’s already thrown more interceptions this year, five, than all of last year, and his completion percentage is down just a tick. But with the Tar Heels working through some injuries at safety, most notably starting safety Myles Wolfolk, Lawrence seems to be on track to have a big day. It will be important for the Tar Heels to get pressure on Lawrence and not allow him to sit back in the pocket and pick apart their defense.

Lawrence does have weapons, though. Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross are two of their premiere receiving targets. Ross missed the last game for the Tigers, but he will be back this Saturday. They will be a handful for the North Carolina secondary.

Then there is Travis Etienne, who rushed for over 1,600 yards last season and is on pace to surpass 1,300 again this year. Etienne is an absolute burner who can turn on the jets at any given moment. He has been held in check mostly since his 200-plus yard week one performance, and it would be big for the Tar Heels to hold him in check again.

There’s a reason Clemson is the best team in the country right now. The North Carolina defense will have their hands full, but it’s a task that Jay Bateman’s staff will certainly have them ready for.

Call It

I really hate having to predict this one. The heart says North Carolina, head says Clemson. I do think the Tar Heels will keep this competitive for a good majority of the game.

Kenan Stadium will be raucous for the 3:30 kickoff, despite the less-than-stellar last two games from the Tar Heels, but in the end, Trevor Lawrence and the Clemson offense will be a little too much for the Tar Heels.

Tigers 41, Heels 27