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UNC’s Rashad says Watson one of many parts of Clemson’s challenging equation

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (theACC.com) – North Carolina senior linebacker Shakeel Rashad well remembers last season’s game at Clemson, when then-freshman quarterback Deshaun Watson threw for six touchdowns in his first career start to lead the home team to a 50-35 win.

But as Rashad and the eighth-ranked Tar Heels prepare to face the top-ranked Tigers in the 2015 Dr Pepper ACC Football Championship game, Watson isn’t their only worry. Rashad knows top-Clemson (12-0) is unbeaten and ranked No. 1 in the nation for multiple reasons – and the Tar Heels (11-1) must at least partially counter all of them when they take the field for Saturday’s 8 p.m. game at Bank of America Stadium.

“If it was just a quarterback, you can scheme that and find a way to stop it,” Rashad said. “But when you’ve got a great quarterback and a lot of great ballplayers around him, it's tough. Those guys do a great job of getting the ball in the playmakers' hands, and they've got them all over the field.”

Indeed, Watson – the ACC Player of the Year and the only quarterback in America who has thrown for more than 3,000 yards and rushed for more than 750 more – is surrounded by a slew of complementary parts.

Start with running back Wayne Gallman – one of four ACC running backs who has eclipsed the 1,000-yard rushing mark with 1,145 in 11 games.

When Watson puts the ball in the air, he has multiple targets. All-ACC wide receiver Artavis Scott has caught 77 passes for 709 yards and four touchdowns. Charone Peake has 36 catches for 523 and five TDs, and freshman Deon Cain also has five touchdown receptions – one in each of the last five games. Tight end Jordan Leggett is a finalist for the John Mackey Award after closing the regular season with 31 receptions for 418 yards and six touchdowns.

Those playmakers work in cohesion with an offensive line that features first-team guard Eric Mac Lain and a three-time ACC Offensive Lineman of the Week in center Jay Guillermo. On the other side of the ball, defensive end Shaq Lawson leads the nation in tackles for loss (20.5), and linebacker B.J. Goodson has registered 10.5 tackles for loss over the Tigers’ last five games.

“You see they're a great football team, and they're well deserving of the spot they've been given,” Rashad said.

At the same time, the Tar Heels don’t own a school-record 11-game winning streak or an 8-0 mark in ACC play by accident. Rashad says they won’t be intimidated on Saturday night as they go after UNC’s first conference title in 35 years.

The Tar Heels boast playmakers of their own among an offensive unit that leads the ACC in scoring at 41.2 points per game. And the defense is vastly improved over the unit Watson shredded almost at will in 2014.

“It’s not like they're unbeatable,” Rashad said of the Tigers. “No team is unbeatable. We saw that (last weekend) with the Patriots. But it's just going to be how we can handle our job. We have to go out, and we have to individually understand what our job is and what we're trying to accomplish as a defense and find a way to get it done. And we're allowing our offense to go out and do what they've been doing all season.”


UPRIGHT AND UNBEATEN

Ironically, as Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney views the regular season in retrospect, the Tigers’ ability to avoid a rash of multiple serious injuries is a major factor in their 12-0 record.

All omens seemed to indicate otherwise when Clemson lost standout wide receiver Mike Williams for the season in almost fluke fashion in the season opener. Williams crashed into the goalpost and injured his neck following a touchdown reception in the Tigers’ 49-10 win over Wofford.

“You lose Mike Williams right out of the gate, who's probably the best receiver in this league and certainly one of the top two or three in the country, and all of a sudden he's gone first quarter, first game …” Swinney recalled, almost incredulously.

But younger and previously untested players began stepping up for Clemson, which entered the season seeking to replace 10 key players on the defensive side of the ball. And after the heart-stopping loss of Williams in the Wofford game, the Tigers have generally avoided serious injuries.

“The biggest thing is we've been fortunate because we've been able to stay healthy for the most part, which was critical to developing some depth, and guys have stepped up and played well for us,” Swinney said. “This team has gotten better. They've grown closer. They fight until the end. They like to play. They like to practice. They've embraced the moment.”

One of Swinney’s major concerns heading into Saturday night’s game is that the Tigers have not had an open week since Sept. 26. UNC, by comparison, had its bye week on Oct. 10.

“The biggest thing is this is going to be our 10th game without a break, 10 in a row,” Swinney said. “I don't know how many teams out there have played 10 in a row, so managing that has probably been the biggest challenge.”


BEYOND SATURDAY NIGHT

A league championship will be on the line Saturday night, and that provides incentive enough for the competing teams. Clemson seeks its 15th ACC title, which would tie Florida State for the most among all schools. UNC eyes its first ACC championship since 1980, when seniors by the name of Lawrence Taylor and Amos Lawrence led the Tar Heels to an 11-1 season and an unbeaten mark in league play.

But what about the College Football Playoff (CFP) and bowl game picture once the game ends?

For Clemson, the equation is pretty simple. The Tigers have owned the top spot in the CFP rankings since their initial release last month, and a win over UNC will assure a spot among this year’s four-team field.

UNC moved up to the No. 10 spot in the CFP rankings this week and obviously needs to win the ACC title to merit serious playoff consideration.

“It’s not going to matter if we don’t take care of our business this weekend,” UNC head coach Larry Fedora said. “It really won't matter. All of our focus will be on Clemson, just like we've done every week. All of our focus will be on the preparation for that game.

“You know, if that's enough, you know, if you beat the No. 1 team in the country and that's enough to get you in, then our team will be excited.”

Speculation has abounded throughout the week regarding the Tar Heels’ CFP chances. Would simply winning Saturday night’s game be enough? Does UNC have to win big? Would even a convincing win vault the Tar Heels the necessary six or more spots in the CFP rankings?

Fedora believes a win – period – should mean case closed.

“If we beat the No. 1 team in the country, which Clemson is the No. 1 team in the country, and it's a consensus No. 1, and they've been No. 1 for a long time – I believe that if that happens, our team is deserving, yes,” Fedora said.

Fedora knows many critics point to UNC’s lone loss – a 17-13 decision to South Carolina in the season opener at Bank of America Stadium on Sept. 3. But that was more than three months and 12 games ago.

“I think if you look at our body of work throughout the rest of the season and running off 11 straight wins, the games that we had to play on the road from Georgia Tech on the road to a short week against Pitt, who was ranked at the time, to playing (Virginia Tech) in Blacksburg on the road when everybody in the country wanted Frank Beamer to win that game … you know, we found ways to do it, so I think this team would be very deserving (should it defeat Clemson),” Fedora said.

Rashad said the Tar Heels need to focus on simply playing Saturday night’s game and let the chips fall where they may.

“I tell you what, they have a lot of really smart people in that room that decide who is deserving of a playoff spot, so we'll let them do what they do,” Rashad said. “For us, we have to do what we do, and keep playing football and find a way to win our games and let them decide and make their decision.”

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney says the ACC deserves at least one spot, regardless.

“Absolutely,” Swinney said. “We have three top-10 teams in the ACC. The third-best team in the ACC (Florida State) just beat the SEC East champion (Florida). The ACC definitely belongs in one of those games.”


UP TO HIS BILLING

With his selection earlier this week as the ACC Player of the Year, Clemson’s Watson became the first player since 2007 to receive the honor both in preseason and at the end of the year.

The accolades continue to pour in for the Gainesville, Georgia, sophomore, who has been named a finalist for multiple national awards. Clemson senior left guard Eric Mac Lain has marveled throughout the season at his fellow first-team All-ACC teammate, who has lived up to the hype but remained humble.

“I think it's fair to say he's gotten what he deserves,” Mac Lain said. “We're just very proud of him. He's gotten recognition from the Heisman and got a letter a couple weeks ago saying they're watching him and so on and so forth.

“So, it's been extremely cool to be part of that process. Deshaun was very clear when he got here. He was like, ‘You know what, guys, this is a team thing. All of us are doing this together.’ So I think his true character has really emerged from this process. He could have gotten big headed and ‘it's all about him.’ He stayed true to the team, and it's pretty unique for a young guy.”

Clemson’s offensive line – with all five starters earning first-, second- or third-team All-ACC honors, has played a huge role in Watson’s success, but Mac Lain said the Tigers’ QB does a lot to aid in his own protection.

“His pocket presence this year is phenomenal,” Mac Lain said. “I don't think we've given up a sack in the past six games or so, and I think that's usually because of his pocket awareness. He knows when to get out of there, he knows when it's closing and he'll find the open receiver. So, to see him develop in his progressions and awareness has been really cool to watch.”


NOTES AND NAMES

- Clemson owns 12 wins for the second time in school history and will be seeking a school-record 13th on Saturday … North Carolina owns 11 wins for the fourth time and will be seeking a school-record 12th.

- Clemson and UNC both registered 8-0 marks in ACC play for the first times in their respective histories. Each has previously gone unbeaten in ACC play, but those seasons pre-dated the eight-game conference schedule. The ACC has had three 8-0 champions the previous five years – Virginia Tech in 2010, and Florida State in 2013 and 2014.

- Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson (first team), UNC quarterback Marquise Williams (second team), UNC running back Elijah Hood (first team) and Clemson running back Wayne Gallman (second team) claimed four of the possible six slots in the All-ACC first- and second-team backfields.

- With the Tigers clinching the ACC Atlantic Division title earlier than the Tar Heels wrapped up the Coastal, most expect the majority of Saturday night’s potentially record Championship Game crowd be pro-Clemson. But Swinney downplayed any advantage his team might have in terms of numbers.

“The game will be decided between the lines,” Swinney said. “They’ll have great crowd, we’ll have great crowd. But you’ve got to play well for that crowd to be an advantage.”

- The Dr Pepper ACC Championship Game will be Swinney’s 100th as head coach of Clemson. Swinney will become the fourth Tiger coach to be at the helm for 100 games, joining Frank Howard (295), Danny Ford (129) and Tommy Bowden (117).

- UNC head coach Larry Fedora has led the two most prolific offenses in school history. This year’s team has already set highs for total points (495) and touchdowns (63). It broke the records of 487 points and 62 touchdowns set in 2012 – Fedora’s first year in Chapel Hill.