ACC Football Championship Preview: Clemson vs North Carolina

Guest Reporter Rachel Eagleton previews the ACC Championship between Clemson and North Carolina.

Charlotte, N.C. - With the regular season closing out last weekend, two teams look to claim one more title. The Clemson Tigers (12-0, 8-0) and the North Carolina Tar Heels (11-1, 8-0) head to Charlotte on Saturday to battle for the right to call themselves the Atlantic Coast Conference Champion.

These are two of the most explosive offenses in the country, which should make for a barnburner at Bank of America Stadium on Saturday night. In fact, the ACCFCG features two of the 15 highest scoring offenses in ACC history. North Carolina ranks third in conference history averaging 41.25 points per game, while Clemson ranks 14th averaging 37.92 points per game.

Let’s take a closer look at each team and break down the key matchups in this game:

All eyes will be on the star quarterbacks for both sides. Clemson’s Deshaun Watson has racked up 3,979 total yards this season, averaging 331.6 yards per game, en route to ACC Player of the Year. Watson has become an even bigger part of the Clemson ground game over the last month, averaging just over 15 carries and 92 rushing yards per game. North Carolina’s run defense has given up 208.3 rushing yards per game this year, which ranks 107th nationally. The Heels have their work cut out for them on that front.

To counter, UNC’s Marquise Williams averages 282.6 yards per game, totaling 3,391 yards on the season. Williams has a bevy of talented options to rely on, from the big-play threats of Bug Howard and the speedy Ryan Switzer, to the big targets of Quinshad Davis and Mack Hollins. Both Howard and Hollins rank among the top 50 in average yards per catch; Hollins leads the nation (25.8 ypc), while Bug Howard (17.4 ypc) ranks 38th nationally.

According to ESPN’s Andrea Adelson, UNC has completed 48 pass plays that have gone for 20 yards or more, which could pose a major problem for the Clemson secondary. Keep an eye on the battle between North Carolina’s deep receiving corps and Clemson’s daunting secondary.

Clemson safeties, T.J. Green (6-foot-3) and Jayron Kearse (6-foot-4), won’t be intimidated by the size of Carolina’s big receivers. Redshirt sophomore cornerback, Mackensie Alexander, is one of the best corners in the nation, as evidenced by his dominant performance against Notre Dame’s Will Fuller. Clemson is fourth in completion percentage (17.9) and third in yards per attempt (7.36) among Power 5 defenses on throws over 25 yards.

Another key matchup will be the play of each teams’ running backs, both of whom have consistently put up big numbers all season long. Clemson’s Wayne Gallman averages 4.9 points and 104.1 rushing yards per game. On the other side, UNC’s Elijah Hood has been instrumental to this offensive unit, rushing for 1,280 yards and 16 touchdowns on the year. Hood has done an excellent job taking the pressure off quarterback Marquise Williams.

With a strong offensive showdown on schedule, both defensive units will have their work cut out for them. Marquise Williams will have to think quickly on his feet to escape the pressure of the Clemson defensive end Shaq Lawson. Lawson leads the nation in tackles for loss (20.5) and is a conference front-runner for sacks (8).

North Carolina’s defensive unit may pose a problem for Watson and his wide receivers because of cornerback Des Lawrence. Lawrence is third in the ACC for defending passes (16) and has two interceptions.

The Clemson UNC matchup has the potential to be a game for the record books with Clemson competing for their 15th title and UNC trying to get their 10th. The game is set to kickoff on ABC at 8:14 p.m. at the Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C.