Clemson hits the road this week after picking up their fourth win and maintaining the #1 ranking in the AP Poll for another week. UNC lost for the second straight week and is looking a little more like the team we expected. The Tigers head to Chapel Hill for the first time since 2010. The Tigers haven’t won in Chapel Hill since 2002, but have a three game win streak in the series with two victories in Clemson and the most recent coming in Charlotte in the 2015 ACC Championship game (45-37).
To help us get preview the matchup, we synced up with an old friend of the blog, Alston Meadows. As some will remember, Alston is a Clemson alumni and UNC graduate. He wrote for Shakin’ the Southland as a student and still has a big soft spot for the Clemson Tigers in his Carolina blue heart. Without further ‘ado, let’s get to the preview!
STS: UNC got off to an excellent start, beating both U of SC and Miami, but have since lost two games and now sit at 2-2. Although the wins and losses are not who you might have expected, how have the Tar Heels performed relative to your expectations overall? In what specific areas have they exceeded expectations most? Where have they fallen short most?
AM: If you had told me before the season that Carolina would be 2-2 going into the Clemson game, I’d have been excited that we bounced back after losing the first two games to beat Wake and App (and win our first two in-state FBS games since 2015). However, expectations justifiably soared after beating U of SC and Miami, so losing the last two and almost certainly going back under .500 next week is definitely a disappointment.
The area exceeding expectations is for sure the passing game. With three known quantities at running back led by sophomore Javonte Williams, we knew the ground attack would be strong. The passing game was the polar opposite. With three freshmen competing for the starting job and a receiving corps that 1) lost its best wideout in Anthony Ratliff-Williams and 2) had never been able to prove its worth with a QB capable of throwing more than 5 yards downfield, nobody really knew what to expect. Sam Howell has been everything Tar Heel fans could’ve asked for out of a true freshman making his first couple collegiate starts.
I’m honestly having a hard time coming up with areas falling short of expectations. If we’re getting nitpicky, I’d say the offensive line, but even that is due mostly to injuries and a lack of depth behind the usually solid starting 5.
STS: Many Clemson fans are familiar with UNC QB Sam Howell, because he spurned FSU at the last moment and left them with no QB-pipeline. He has earned the starting job at UNC as a true freshman and began his career by beating South Carolina. Now that you have four games worth of sample to assess, how do you see Howell attacking Clemson’s defense most effectively in this game. More broadly, what does his college career trajectory look like?
I was going to say he could use his big arm and accurate deep ball to attack the Tigers downfield, but that’s easier said than done against corners like AJ Terrell and Derion Kendrick. Then I wanted to say he’d use his speedy receivers like Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome to attack the perimeter with screens and sweeps, but that’s easier said than done when a cheat code like Isaiah Simmons is on the other team flying from sideline to sideline. That’s not to mention the lack of time he’ll most likely have with the Clemson defensive line and linebackers attacking from every angle imaginable. Against any other team on the schedule, I’d have a good answer, but this Clemson team is just different.
As for his career trajectory, it’s hard to be anything other than optimistic. Now everyone reading this will be familiar with one Jake Bentley as a cautionary tale against getting too excited about a true freshman QB, but like I said in the previous answer, Howell has been everything UNC fans could ask for so far in his young career.
STS: As you know, Clemson will be favored by 21+ in all their remaining regular season games. As such, it’s nice to understand where opponents are best suited to challenge us we have an area to really assess. Where should Clemson fans look if we want to learn more about the Tigers in a game with a four touchdown spread?
For this game in particular, I want to see how Clemson’s downfield passing attack looks. Tiger fans who came into the year expecting perfection from Trevor Lawrence have been disappointed with his [relatively] inaccurate deep ball and [relative] problems with interceptions. UNC’s secondary has the players to cause some problems in that regard, especially if ball hawking safety Myles Wolfolk is healthy. TLaw will need to be sharp reading the field if he wants to keep his stat line clean.
STS: What matchups concern you most? In other words, where are the Tar Heels most vulnerable (don’t worry, I won’t let Dabo read this!).
Can I say all of them? If I have to pick just one, I would say Clemson’s ground game against the Carolina defense. The Heels have been in position to make a play most of the time thanks to former Army DC Jay Bateman, but tackling has been a recurring problem through the first 4 games. If they can’t consistently bring down RBs from a G5 team like App State and a glorified G5 team like South Carolina, trying to tackle Travis Etienne could turn into quite an adventure. As everyone here knows, if you get a chance to tackle ETN, you better make it happen. Otherwise he can turn a 3-yard gain into a 75-yard TD in the blink of an eye.
STS: Finally, let’s end on a personal note. You attended both Clemson and UNC. How have the rare matchups between the two been for you? Do you think UNC keeps this one competitive?
It’s tough watching the two play, to be honest. It’s like watching your kids fight where you just want everyone to get along, but that’s what I get for going to two schools from the same conference. I usually root for whichever team has more to lose in the game. In 2014 I was a sophomore at Clemson, so that was easy. I left for UNC and that sweet, sweet in-state tuition in 2015, though, just in time for the rematch at the ACC title game. There, I was sitting in the UNC student section wearing Carolina blue and rooting for Clemson because the Tigers were one game away from their first ever College Football Playoff appearance.
While I’ll be cheering for Clemson again this weekend, I certainly hope the Heels can keep it competitive. This should be a big recruiting weekend in front of a sold out Kenan Stadium, so keeping it respectable could go a long way toward maintaining the positive momentum Mack Brown and his staff have established on the field and on the recruiting trail. I still would have to say Tigers by 24 or so.
STS: We hope you enjoyed with Q&A with out old friend Alston Meadows. Please give him a follow on twitter here.