It’s been a curious season of Carolina football. Expectations were tempered to start the season, then perhaps grew out of control after the Tar Heels reeled off six straight wins after the Notre Dame loss, four of them by a single possession. Now that UNC staggered into the ACC Championship game with two head-scratching losses to teams they were favored to beat at Kenan Stadium, Mack Brown and crew can walk into Bank of America Stadium without the weight of expectations crushing their shoulders. It’s time to play with house money.
Clemson, winners of six of the last seven ACC championships, are in the midst of a comparatively down season. They lost their state rivalry game to South Carolina last Saturday at home, just like UNC did to NC State. Will the loss of the Palmetto Bowl fire the Tigers up to make immediate amends, or will the loss of a college football playoff spot soften their resolve?
Here are three things to watch for the ACC Championship game in Charlotte.
Can Drake Maye get back in stride?
Let me make something perfectly clear: Drake Maye deserves his ACC Player of the Year award, having built up ample credit early in the season. Two poor performances in Carolina’s last two games doesn’t mean he’s suddenly a bad player. He faced two of the tougher defenses in the ACC, and Clemson falls just behind NC State at #22 after the final week of the regular season.
NC State and Georgia Tech made Maye uncomfortable with a sustained pass rush and timely blitzes. He’s also thrown for less than 300 yards in both games (showing his high standards, right?) and has been picked off in both games. Carolina’s only chance of winning against Clemson rests on Maye’s right arm (and probably legs), so it’s imperative that he get back to what made him the ACC’s best player in his first year starting.
Drake Maye, this year’s ACC Player of the Year— Carolina Football (@UNCFootball) November 30, 2022
Oh, and also this year’s ACC Rookie of the Year, Offensive Player of the Year, and Offensive Rookie of the Year #CarolinaFootball #UNCommon pic.twitter.com/3JV7q91lJN
Clemson’s corners can be got if Maye, Downs, and Green are dialed in. The Tar Heels have to dominate in the pass game, because it will probably be a lean day for Elijah Green and company out of the backfield.
Who’s gonna cover?
Tar Heel fans will be stressing all week on the condition of starting cornerbacks Tony Grimes and Storm Duck, as well as safety Cam Kelly. All missed time against NC State (Grimes was scratched from the line-up altogether) and having a full deck is essential to Carolina keeping pace with Clemson.
UNC’s defense has had some success against the run this year (NC State only rushed for 59 yards), but First-Team All-ACC running back Will Shipley is different gravy. The Heels will have their hands full trying to keep him in check. Carolina would much rather have the ball in quarterback DJ Uiagalelei’s hands. Uiagalelei has not lifted Clemson to its familiar perch this year, averaging just 209 passing yards per game. The Tigers needed more against the Gamecocks. They got 99.
Sometimes DJ can get a bit loose with his touch, so if UNC can stay tight to their receivers, they can help their beleaguered defensive line get off the field on third down. A turnover or two would be great, because if Maye and the offense can put up unanswered scores, it might take the ball out of Shipley’s sure hands and put it in Uiagalelei’s shakier ones.
Will Shipley swing?
Will Shipley apologized to Clemson’s fans and former players after the South Carolina loss, despite being the best Tiger on the field. The sophomore running back ran for 132 yards (nearly 9 yards per carry!) and a touchdown, but had the ball taken out of his hands by Clemson’s coaches.
If Clemson was smart, they’d give him 25 carries and 10 swing passes, something that has burned Carolina for two straight weeks. Shipley is the best running back UNC has seen since Pitt’s Israel Abanikanda, who ran for 127 yards and three touchdowns in Chapel Hill.
Shipley can easily duplicate that effort, and then some. He has a unique combination of speed and power:
The only question is will Carolina sell out to stop him and force Uiagalelei to beat them through the air? Whoever can figure out the right balance and limit the most damage will likely come out on top.