STS: What's the best defense the Heels have seen so far this season? What unique challenges will Clemson's defense bring that they haven't faced to this point?
AM: According to S&P+, the toughest defense Carolina has faced this year is Virginia Tech, ranking 28 in defensive S&P (Clemson, for reference, is number 6). I would say the eye test backs that up, given the fact that the Hokies held UNC to its lowest regulation point total (24) outside of a game that may or may not have happened in the opening week. Clemson obviously boasts a strong defensive line (#4 in front 7 havoc rate) but the Heels have faced a few other formidable opponents in Pittsburgh, NC State, and Virginia Tech (#10, #21, and #27, respectively).
The most unique challenge that Brent Venables' unit poses is the outstanding Tiger secondary. Tar Heel WRs Quinshad Davis, Mack Hollins, Bug Howard, and Ryan Switzer have each been having outstanding seasons, but how will they fare against Mack Alexander, Cordrea Tankersly, Jayron Kearse, et. al? This, to me, is the matchup to watch this Saturday.
STS: What type of back is Elijah Hood? How does he stack up to Dalvin Cook, CJ Prosise, or Clemson's own Wayne Gallman?
AM: Hood certainly fits the mold of Dalvin Cook the best out of those listed. He is the trendy new type of RB whose primary weapon is his ability to fight through tackles and stay on his feet, but still has the speed and field vision to burst through holes when they're available. That said, I wouldn't put Hood in the same class as Cook, as very few backs in the game today are even close. In terms of overall quality, I would say Hood is comparable to the Wayne Train. Hood has about 140 more yards (1,280 vs 1,145) and averages 1.4 more yards per carry (6.7 vs 5.3), but when you compare the quality of defenses the two have faced, I'd say it levels out fairly nicely.
STS: UNC's offense was excellent a season ago and it's no surprise to see how they've continue to put up numbers this year. The defense, now under Gene Chizik rather than Vic Koening, has taken strides this year. That's seemingly the biggest difference from a year ago. They are still giving up a decent amount of yardage, but the points scored against them have dropped considerably. Two questions on that topic. First, do you think UNC can stop Clemson's rushing attack? If so, how?
AM: The Tigers will certainly get their fair share of yards on the ground in Charlotte. Gene Chizik's defense relies on creating tight throwing windows for the opposing quarterback. This means he only brings pressure when absolutely necessary and typically drops 7 into coverage, relying on the DL to provide pressure. This probably accounts for the huge gap between the Carolina pass and rush defense.
To stop the Clemson rushing attack, the Heels will need big games from DTs Jalen Dalton and Nazair Jones. Additionally, senior LBs Jeff Schoettmer and Shakeel Rashad will need to read their keys well and diagnose the run quickly to come out of coverage and up to the line in hopes of getting to Gallman before he reaches the open field.
STS: Lastly, How much credit do you give to Gene Chizik, and do you think he will be at UNC for the long haul?
AM: Chizik certainly gets a huge amount of credit for the miraculous turnaround the Tar Heels have seen this season. Clemson fans will remember all too well what life was like under former DC Vic Koening. With largely the same roster as a year ago, Carolina's defense has gone from "tackling dummies would do a better job" bad to pretty average.
As for whether or not he's in Chapel Hill for the long haul, that's one of the burning questions around the Carolina program. He's done well enough with this unit to put his name on a few head coaching radars, but we all know how his last stint as a HC went, so schools may be hesitant to give him a second chance (unlike Carolina Jr. supposedly giving Will Muschamp another chance after just one year as an assistant). Rumor has it head coach Larry Fedora and his staff are about to sign big contract extensions after this weekend, so I remain cautiously optimistic on that front.
STS: A big thank you to Alston Meadows for volunteering for a last minute Q&A Session. We have about five other ACC Championship previews including a podcast, video breakdown, opponent film study, historical perspectives piece, and our standard preview on the site, so be sure to check those out and also give Alston a follow on Twitter.