I'll start off with a few thoughts from last week. I know I was feeling my blood pressure rise and was in no great mood watching the USCjr game. It almost became lost on me that this team had done something I wasn't sure I'd see again in my lifetime. This team went undefeated in the regular season. I have a 1981 season poster in my classroom that seems more old and faded every year. This team deserves all the praise and adoration we can give it, win or lose Saturday, as it has set a new bar for the modern Clemson era. Also looking at that '81 poster, I can only imagine how the modern audience would have reacted to several closer than it should have been moments that team had. However, this team so far has been like the '81 team in that when the time came to ramp it up against the best teams on the docket, they have done just that. I expect a great effort from the Tigers in Charlotte and feel they will have a harder time adjusting to what we bring than the other way around.
Clemson offense versus UNC defense: Clemson definitely needs to dominate this side of the ball on Saturday. UNC has improved a great deal on defense, mainly by being a bend but don't break style of team. This type of defense would worry me a lot more if Tajh Boyd were running the show. Tajh was phenomenal at generating explosive plays but wasn't always great about taking what the defense gave him.
USCjr did everything in their power to make Clemson put together multi-play drives to score in hopes of a self destruct along the way. In a sense, it worked when Clemson had the case of the fumbles from normally reliable guys. However, that was about all that saved them from having a 50 point barrage put on them. This is because Deshaun Watson is an incredible player. I'm not sure we will see his equal again, though I hope so, because he was masterful and not forcing the issue trying to make a home run play when it wasn't there. The one time SC rolled into single high coverage in the first half, Watson hit Cain for the bomb.
The other factor is that Clemson is good enough up front and with Gallman to punish a light box in the run game. Jeff Scott and Tony Elliot have been very good about sticking to the run game against these looks as well. As long as the Tigers hold onto the ball and avoid stupid penalties, I don't feel the Tarheel defense can stop it. Clemson has faced much better units and with the exception of Notre Dame (which had a lot to do with the weather), it has racked up well over 400 yards when no other teams have done it. This game may have moments like the West Virginia bowl game, but in that game, the WVU offense never flinched and eventually the Tiger offense did when Ellington fumbled at the goal line. As long as Watson and crew don't flinch, the Tiger defense will do enough to sway the contest (provided special teams aren't a huge factor).
UNC is pretty good at corner, but the Tigers can roll 7 guys at them with little to no drop off in talent. Clemson has had explosive touchdowns from Leggett, Peake, Cain, Renfrow, Hopper, Scott, and McCloud this season. Thompson hasn't gotten one yet but was in on the huge 3rd down play last week.
It goes without saying that having Crowder and Gallman at close to full go is a major plus for the Tigers in this game. I have little doubt that UNC will employ a strategy similar to the Gamecocks last week and hope they can generate a turnover or Clemson self destructs. Clemson has to pound that deep 2 safety look with the run game and hope they can generate a single high or zero coverage opportunity to go over the top. Watson absolutely scorched the Tarhole defense last year, especially against the blitz. This group is more sound but the talent isn't much different than before. UNC hasn't seen anything like the Tiger offense this year. NCST was the closest thing because of Brissett and the Pack put up a heap of points and yards after a terrible start. We all know NCST is limited at wide receiver compared to Clemson and has been missing their top two running backs. I'm hopeful the "shock to the system" trying to adjust to Clemson's level of talent will result is a very hot start in Charlotte.
Clemson defense versus UNC offense: I've seen a lot of gloom and doom posts on this site this week regarding this part of the game. It is very true Clemson has been springing leaks on defense down the stretch. It is also true that UNC is the best offense Clemson has seen since Notre Dame. I still rank the Irish (at the Clemson game when Prosise was healthy) ahead because their OL is superior to UNC's. The Fuller, Brown, Robinson, Hunter group was just as good as UNC's set. I feel pretty good that Tank and Mac can match up with Hollins and Davis and Howard on the outside. The guy that hurt Clemson last year and worries me this time is Switzer in the slot. I expect we will see the Tigers in nickel almost exclusively with Dime of Doom mixed in on longer yardage situations. If there is any special wrinkle in the system, say Kearse at SAM/Nickel with Jadar Johnson starting, this is the time to break it out.
The Heels have had great success running the ball with Hood, Williams, and Logan against pretty pedestrian defenses this season. The biggest reason is teams have been terribly outmatched on the perimeter and forced to play shell as a result. VT was the exception to this and challenged UNC on the outside which came close to helping the Hokies spring the upset. Even the Tiger skill in 2012, which was ridiculous and superior to what UNC has now, struggled in some games (namely USCjr and FSU) when they were physically challenged on the outside.
Clemson has been blitz heavy this year for sure, but I'm thinking we will see less of it on Saturday night. Clemson has to have Lawson and Dodd win on the outside and generate a good pass rush. First down success is critical against the HUNH. Like Clemson, UNC has great success if they generate a first down initially in the drive and can get into their tempo like they want. Ben Boulware and B.J. Goodson need to be on point with the zone read system and especially need to punish Marquise Williams when he runs. Williams is not one that slides much and will take contact when he runs, so make him pay! Hopefully Williams will have one of those turnover fests like he had against the Gamecocks. UNC also has a capable backup in Mitch Trubisky, but he isn't nearly the run threat that Williams is. UNC is a dangerous passing team for sure, but the mission will be to make them pass to win. Clemson is good enough in the secondary and in the rush to win if UNC becomes one dimensional.
Special Teams: If there is a real worry for this game, I think it comes here. NCST was ready to take advantage and I'm sure UNC will be too. They have the athletes to punish Clemson for poor coverage. Watching Clemson not even put a returner back for some punts last week was beyond maddening. We have been playing scared on special teams. Man for man the Tigers are better than the Heels, but special teams can swing a game as we all know. Again, the hope from me is to just not blow it in this phase. Clemson is long overdue for a positive game changer in this area (been since Notre Dame, really).
Overall: Who knows just how much Clemson has been holding back, setting up, etc. for a game like this. Clemson has been just too good for everybody since the FSU game (when the Tigers really played well after the first quarter). The "scary" moments against Syracuse and USCjr all came after the team jumped out to at least 2 score leads at different points. It smacks of letdown that I don't expect Saturday night. Clemson has been in some huge games with this senior class while this UNC team is tasting its first big game in a very long time. I think that is an important intangible. Even the 2011 team that struggled mightily down the stretch put a beating on a red hot Virginia Tech squad in the champ game. The 2015 team's "struggles" have been not beating some folks by 28. Believe in your Tigers!
Clemson 45 UNC 25