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Film Preview: ACC Championship - Clemson vs. North Carolina

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North Carolina's offense is the toughest Clemson will face all year, and points are imminent -- the question is: how many?

Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Championship weekend offers Clemson a chance to look in the mirror, so to speak. Not merely because UNC is schematically similar, but because the Clemson defenders need to look in the mirror and find themselves. After a fantastic start, the defense regressed to the level of preseason expectations thanks to a myriad of busts and lack of depth/discipline at linebacker. UNC possesses the most dynamic, explosive, and ultimately the best offense Clemson has faced all year, and you are right to be nervous.

We've heard many excuses for the Clemson defense over the past month, which blame the recurrent busts on a lack of focus which derive from a lack of respect for the weak opponents since FSU. Film study says otherwise, since opponents know our weaknesses and have since found astounding success with barely any defensive mitigation. Our weaknesses are evident on film, and UNC is more capable against us than any offense we've faced since Notre Dame.

Skill Position Nightmares

As I mentioned, UNC is a schematic twin to Clemson in that we each primarily employ 113 and (although UNC likes to run more 203) Shotgun sets in an uptempo attack. They have a mobile quarterback, a respectable front, and extremely athletic skill position players.

QB Marquise Williams is the headliner, but in my opinion he is the weakest part of the Tar Heel offense. That's not a knock on Williams at all; let this sink in: the backs and receivers are so good, that the career offense leader in school history is the one I force to beat me if I'm Brent Venables. This offense reminds me of Clemson under Tajh Boyd, in which a dynamic and explosive, yet inconsistent QB benefited from supremely talented skill players; leading the team to astonishing highs or head-scratching lows.

Williams is a boom or bust passer; never was it more plain than in an inexplicable season-opening loss to South Carolina in which Williams threw 3 red zone interceptions.

Images courtesy of ABC, ESPN, and the ACC Digital Network:

UNC vs SC pick 1

I must note that Williams is still a very good playmaker, and has not looked this poor since September. In addition to his well-documented success on designed runs, he is very effective off of play action -- obviously a huge concern against our linebackers where we lack and depth and discipline due to over-aggressiveness.

SC bust

Above, play action pulled Skai Moore towards the LOS in man C1 with Moore playing a robber zone (the two OLBs are in man against the TE and RB, who block). Thanks to a coverage bust but also due to the play-action victimizing Moore, the WR runs free down the seam on a post. We've seen play-action pull Clemson's linebackers out of position all year, and this is problematic against an erratic QB like Williams -- who we must force into difficult, NFL-caliber throws against our strong secondary, not easy ones like we see above and below.

UNC PA

All that said, it is not Williams or his receivers who scare me (well, Switzer in the slot does). Clemson has a very good secondary and a more than capable pass rush. Clemson is very difficult to beat through the air barring busts (mainly off of play action, of course). As we have seen, an unbalanced attack cannot beat Clemson consistently. What can UNC do to open up its air attack against such a strong back 4? Exactly what should scare any educated Clemson football fan: the versatile and deadly UNC running game.

After the red zone debacles against South Carolina in Charlotte, it seems Larry Fedora finally realized he has studs in running backs Elijah Hood and TJ Logan. UNC has an explosive deep aerial attack, sure, but that's not a consistent threat against a good secondary. Williams can be efficient when presented easy, open throws off of play action...which obviously work better with an established ground attack. It's not the deep shots that worry me, it's the zone read:

UNC ZR

Hood is the bruising workhorse who will make Williams' night easy, but Williams himself is a threat to run both on zone read and on scrambles. Hood and Logan open up the entire UNC offense and put unbearable stress on a defense because it must account for every threat all over the field -- much like we see from Clemson and Watson when we establish Wayne Gallman. If the running backs rack up 4 or 5 per carry, Williams is much more threatening both on the ground and through the air, where he will find open running and throwing lanes.

Considering the trouble we had with running QBs at Syracuse and SC (even Perry Orth, FFS), we must play solid assignment football against option concepts for the first time since Georgia Tech (oh, the irony).

NC vs NCSU 1

Above we see a simple zone read, a staple in any uptempo, dual-threat attack. UNC's line manhandles State's interior DL, but with the SAM blitz State is actually in a great call to get a TFL. The unblocked end stays home on Williams, as he should, and the SAM has a free shot at Logan...but he went too far upfield towards Williams and ultimately blows his assignment. Looks familiar, doesn't it?

Our vulnerabilities at linebacker have been exposed on film to the point where bad teams have taken advantage with wild and alarming success. If Syracuse and South Carolina gave us trouble with option and play action concepts, what will UNC do to us with its studs in the backfield and out wide? Gap integrity and assignments in the running game are everything tomorrow.

UNC has the athletes out wide to trouble even our secondary without much help from the running game, but if the backs run free then Williams will be able to operate efficiently -- just take a look at defenses against Deshaun Watson to see how that will turn out. Defensive success tomorrow is simple in theory: stop the run, put UNC in obvious passing situations, and make Williams beat you through the air. I am not sure if he is capable:

UNC holding

UNC had a receiver wide open downfield, but Williams couldn't hit him from a straight drop. Also, Clemson's corners are much stronger than VT's without Kendall Fuller, so you have to wonder how open their receivers can get in passing situations. And hooooooboy what do you think Shaq Lawson can do to that left tackle? Horrible no-call on the hold, but it is almost basketball season now, so...

Clemson needs the same performance from its front 7 that we saw against Notre Dame, otherwise the game will become a track meet. Take away the run and force Williams into standard dropback passes, and UNC will not keep up with Watson and the Clemson offense.

Phenomenal Defensive Improvement, but Still an Average Unit

North Carolina had one of the worst defenses of all time a year ago, but they've completed a startling turnaround towards mediocrity (in a good way) under new coordinator Gene Chizik. Below, you can see how effective Chizik is as a teacher through the way UNC disguises the WLB fire blitz against an empty set:

UNC blitz disguise

You can see VT QB Michael Brewer survey the UNC defense. It looks like man C0 or robber with a SAM fire blitz. Brewer takes note and adjusts his protection to the left side. In the .gif below, watch the SAM back out into man just before the snap and the WLB come on the blitz from the opposite side, with the safety picking up the slot receiver to the boundary side. Brewer did not anticipate it, and the line pinched left to anticipate a strong side blitz -- which left the weak side unblocked.

UNC sack vs VT

The WDE stunted inside and the RT followed him, the RG was then left with no one to block -- a sure sign of a protection bust from a well-disguised blitz.

The improvement is easy to see, but considering the low caliber of the offenses UNC has faced this is not a particularly strong unit. UNC fans should worry about the Clemson offense much more than we've worried about the UNC offense here -- and that's saying quite a lot.

Bottom Line

Despite the (justifiable) worry over Clemson's defense and the sense of imminent doom, the Clemson defense is actually the best UNC has faced this season (we are still an efficient defense despite the explosive busts). Not to mention, the Clemson offense should expose a UNC defense who has yet to face a top 40 offense. UNC is a very good team -- one I feel is criminally underrated in the CFB playoff ranking -- and certainly the toughest offense we've faced and with a wonderfully improved defense to boot, but pump the brakes.

UNC is talented and balanced on offense, but Clemson is more talented and just as balanced -- with the added efficiency of Watson in comparison to Williams. For all of Clemson's depth issues and busts, the Tigers' defense still outclasses Carolina's in both talent and efficiency. It is fair to say the Heels have not seen a defense as good as Clemson's -- even at its current level.

Much like Clemson of late, UNC's weakness lies in run defense -- but it stems from less talent up front rather than missed assignments like we see with Clemson's struggles. Both teams need big days from their respective running backs. Clemson hopes to wear the opponent down with its usual efficiency and "pick your poison" style of play; UNC needs to establish its running backs in order to take pressure off of Williams, and manipulate Clemson's linebackers and safeties into giving up easy throws.

UNC fans must forgive me for driving this narrative, but the Heels are untested -- even after a 12 game season, odd as it seems -- due to an unfortunate schedule and tomorrow being its first time in a big game/spotlight since...the Mack Brown era? Clemson has played in big games and won; UNC has not. Like we've said all year, our opponent's only hope against Watson is for more Clemson turnovers. Remove the turnovers, and it's difficult to see UNC stopping this offense. Clemson will bust and UNC will score, but not enough to keep up with Watson at his best.

Clemson 48, UNC 38