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Assessing the Threat: Clemson at North Carolina

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Clemson will make their second road trip of the 2019 season when they visit Kenan Memorial Stadium to face the Tar Heels.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 24 NC State at North Carolina Photo by Dannie Walls/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Overview:

2018 Record: 2-9 (1-7)
Returning Starters (via Athlon): 10/22 (4 offense, 6 defense)

It was just 2015 when the Tar Heels gave the Clemson Tigers a run for their money in the ACC Championship game. They’ve fallen fast and have a new coach to show for it. Out is Larry Fedora, in is Mack Brown. Brown coached the Tar Heels from 1988-1997. Following an ugly first two years (one win each season), they went on a run that included three 10-win seasons and victories in the Peach and Gator Bowls. Now he’s back hoping to rekindle that glory.

There’s certainly some optimism (and some good reason for it), but bringing back past coaches is far from a safe bet. UConn is trying it with Coach Randy Edsall who previously brought them to a Fiesta Bowl and four other bowl games. In his first two seasons back they’ve won just four games and now they’ve left the Big East.

Joining Mack Brown is OC Phil Longo. He comes from Ole Miss, where they ran an extremely up-tempo offense that threw for over 4,000 yards. UNC threw for only 2,740 last year. They won’t come close to 4,000 yards, but they’ll turn up the pace and take some risks. They’ll have a new QB at the helm, likely true freshman and former FSU commit Sam Howell or one of the redshirt freshmen he is competing with. They were confident enough in the QB change being an upgrade that they moved QB Chaz Surratt to linebacker.

The defense will be led by DC Jay Bateman, who joins UNC from Army. Army just completed an 11-win season that included holding eight opponents under 15 points and taking Oklahoma into OT while holding them to 28 points. That success was coupled with a triple-option ball-dominant offense. Will it work with an up-tempo offense? Time will tell.

Key Threats for Clemson:

UNC plays their first five games in the Tar Heel state, but they’ve got some interesting competition with South Carolina, Miami, Wake Forest, and App State preceding Clemson. The S&P+ systems gives UNC between a 25%-44% chance in each of those games. If they come into Clemson with a winning record and growing confidence, they’ll be more dangerous.

The Heels are poised to improve throughout the year as their rookie QB gains experience and the team gets more experience with the new coordinators. Getting them in week 5 instead of in November is good for Clemson.

While Isaiah Simmons is excellent at SAM/Nickel, Clemson is breaking in new linebackers at the WILL and MIKE following mass departure at linebacker (Jalen Williams, Kendall Joseph, Tre Lamar, J.D. Davis, Shaq Smith all leaving). With the Power Ranger no longer dominating along the defensive line, the linebacking corps will need to be on-point, especially in their run fits. RB Michael Carter returns for his junior season after averaging 7.1 YPC in an injury shortened season. He has the potential to create big plays if Clemson’s linebackers aren’t ready, especially at the pace the Tar Heels will play with.

Final Assessment:

The Heels only won two games last season, but were within 10 in most of the losses. They’re not too far off from being a middle of the pack, bowl eligible team. Unfortunately, they have non-conference games against South Carolina, App State, and at Wake Forest (yes, you read that right), and their rotating Atlantic Division opponent is Clemson. As such, reaching six wins and a bowl game may be tough. They should be more than a mere pushover though. If highly-rated freshman QB Sam Howell is ahead of schedule, they could exceed expectations.

Even if everything goes as planned for UNC, it would likely take a flukey game with injuries or crazy turnovers for their defense to get enough stops to keep pace. The S&P+ gives them an 8% chance to beat Clemson. That feels about right, because even if it becomes a shootout, they don’t have the horses at WR and TE to help their young QB keep up with Trevor Lawrence, Tee Higgins, Justyn Ross, Travis Etienne, and the rest of the Tigers. The Tigers just need to focus on preventing game-changing plays from the explosive RB Michael Carter.

Risk Level: Low
Road Trip Appeal: High