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UNC vs. Clemson: Game Preview

Carolina must burn the ships, as there’s no going home for the rest of the season

Georgia Tech v Clemson Photo by Eakin Howard/Getty Images

With Kenan Stadium shut down for the rest of 2023, the Tar Heels must hit the road from here until the end of the season. What will that season look like? Mathematics tells us that it will probably not include a trip to Charlotte for the ACC Championship game, but it’s not impossible.

A bowl is a certainty, but will it have a historical name attached, or just a sponsor? Wins against Clemson and NC State could push Carolina back into the Orange Bowl, but a loss in either game (or both!) could put them into “... with that said, I will not be playing in the XXX Bowl, in order to prepare for the NFL Draft” territory.

Death Valley looms, and the sleepy Tigers are now wide awake, thanks to an angry phone call from Tyler. Clemson is 2-0 since that conversation, and the offense has come to life, scoring 31 and 42 points, with the latter being a conference season-high. The Tar Heels defense has been shaken, rattled, and rolled by Virginia, Georgia Tech, and Duke, and has to summon up the strength and courage to stop sabotaging Drake Maye and the offense as they attempt (for the second season in a row) to reach for win number nine with an eye to surpass last year’s squad.

The story of this season’s balloon popping lies at the feet of the defense. They have been too easy to run against, don’t handle tempo, and can’t win games despite the insane amount of points gifted to them by Chip Lindsey’s offense.

Gene Chizik’s “bend but don’t break” defense has done plenty of the former and arguably even more of the latter, and the results have been predictable. It won’t get any easier with Clemson, who have a dynamic rushing attack led by Phil Mafah and Will Shipley. The pair combined for 173 yards against Georgia Tech, so if we extrapolate that, we can expect approximately 2,980 yards against Carolina.

Part of Chizik’s philosophy is making an opponent’s offense execute and forcing timely turnovers. A simple review of the ACC schedule neatly breaks the season into the “good times” (Pitt, Syracuse, and Miami) versus the “bad times” (Virginia, Georgia Tech, and Duke). In the good times, Carolina forced nine turnovers. In the bad times, they only got three.

You can swallow sadness on defense if you’re picking off passes or scooping up a fumble every once in a while. If you don’t, you’re forcing Drake Maye to be perfect. He’s really good, but he’s not perfect.

Can Carolina turn Clemson over? The Tigers have been surprisingly generous this season, throwing seven interceptions and losing nine fumbles, and they’ve turned the ball over at least once in every game. For UNC to have any chance, the defense has to either 1.) not get bulldozed again and again and again, or 2.) get some timely turnovers to give Drake Maye and the offense extra possessions.

This song should be pumping in every defender’s headphones on the way to Death Valley (Clemson = Huns):

Clemson’s D is stout, but Carolina has come to grips with a tougher one in Duke. The Blue Devils currently own the #22 scoring defense in college football, giving up just 18.8 points per game, while Clemson comes in at #39, surrendering 21.2 ppg. Keep in mind that Duke would be tied for #7 with Air Force at just 15.7 ppg if it weren’t for the 47 points Carolina hung on them in double overtime.

Carolina can score, and they’ve proven they can score on anyone. Unfortunately, the pressure is on the offense because they must score if they want to stay in the contest. Clemson has 24 sacks on the season, two less than UNC, so if the Tar Heels can keep Drake Maye clean and on schedule, the offense has a chance.

In the secondary, senior safety Jalyn Phillips is out and senior cornerback Sheridan Jones is questionable. If Carolina can attack Clemson’s depth, they could find joy to open up space at the line for Omarion Hampton to gobble up yardage. The Tigers are only giving up 107.3 rushing ypg, but Hampton averages 123.6 ypg (and an amazing 155 ypg in his last five games!), so who wins this battle will be a deciding factor.

Prediction: UNC 35, Clemson 42