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ACC Title Game Preview: Clemson Faces UNC in Charlotte

Can the Tigers Right the Ship?

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Clemson Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

Well last week was certainly a rough day for all of Tiger Nation. I can now say I’ve seen a loss to the Gamecocks in person for the first time, and it isn’t a feeling I want to repeat. I won’t belabor what has already been hashed out on here in the articles and comments, but all the warts of the 2022 Clemson Tigers were exposed and led to a pretty unbelievable loss. I congratulate the Gamecocks for being the tougher team mentally and can only hope this year’s Tigers can regroup and finish the season strong. Getting to 11 and 12 wins is still a tremendous accomplishment, as is winning the conference title, and those are still on the table.

Now the Tigers face a similarly reeling UNC team who just dropped a very close game to their arch rivals at home. The Tarheels looked to be on the fast track to the top 10 with only a loss to Notre Dame, like Clemson, before going to Atlanta and losing miserably to Georgia Tech. Both teams know they can earn a major feather in the cap for the season with a win in this game or face limping badly into whatever bowl game awaits the loser.

Clemson offense vs. UNC defense: I wish I could say I am super optimistic that the Tigers can go to work on what has largely been a very poor Tarheel defense. The Heels have improved on this side of the ball, or at least faced offenses less capable of hurting them the way they got hurt. However, as long as teams can do what the Gamecocks did, which is play almost entirely cover 1 and cover 0 press coverage, it puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the Tigers’ running game to make the offense function.

It is hard to explain just how poor Clemson has been at producing big plays in the passing game. Either guys get open and aren’t seen, get open but can’t catch, get open and the throw is poor, or can’t get open at all. The DJU and WR we saw in Winston-Salem early in the season seem like a lifetime ago. That group was making plays consistently against a defense loading up to stop the run.

I echo many fans’ frustrations that Clemson hasn’t featured their strongest suit, the running backs, even more than they have in recent weeks. Not since the 2008 Maryland game have I been so confounded by what seemed to be an abandonment of what was working well in the first half. Did the Gamecocks make a few adjustments? Yes, but all it was designed to do is lure the Tigers into trying to throw and play to their defense’s advantages vs. what the Tigers have to do to win on offense. The offensive staff and quarterback obliged and the results spoke for themselves.

The Tigers will hopefully feature their 22 personnel packages a lot more this week, but I fear they have a limited set of plays out of that since the offense is designed around the 11 personnel at its core. Clemson has Antonio Williams and not a lot else to hang their hat on at WR with Beaux Collins out with a bad shoulder. I’ve long since given up hope that Joe Ngata or E.J. Williams or Brannen Spector will provide anything more than 1 to 2 catches for a modest gain in a game. Clemson’s tight ends are a strength, but when the Tigers run 11 or 12 personnel groupings, they are often called upon to help pass protect against the increasingly heavy blitz looks defenses are throwing at the Tigers due to a lack of respect for being hurt over the top. Maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised this week, but I’m thinking the Tigers must run for 200+ again, control the clock, and try to grind out a win. Will Shipley, Phil Mafah, and perhaps Kobe Pace have GOT to top 30 touches as a group at the minimum.

Clemson defense vs. UNC offense: The Tigers did several good things on defense last week, including producing 9 points of their own. If you would have told me Clemson gets to 30 heading into last week, I would have taken it and said “that’s a win!” However, Clemson made some terrible mistakes at the wrong times, primarily at safety. South Carolina also made a few good contested catches, one over Barrett Carter on their first scoring drive, and another on a perfect back shoulder vs. Sheridan Jones. You can live with those because it forces the other team to execute at a very high level. Turning guys loose with terrible eye discipline is an entirely different matter. UNC will cook the Tigers even worse if that doesn’t get better this weekend.

Drake Maye is an outstanding player and in my opinion the best QB the Tigers have faced all season. He can hurt you with his legs well enough and consistently makes plays on and off schedule. The Tarheels feature an elite WR, Josh Downs, as well as probably three or four guys better and more productive on the outside than what Clemson has had this season. The Heels don’t run the ball all that well with their backs, as Maye is their leading rusher, but unlike some of the previous teams under OC Phil Longo, this offense can still operate without establishing its core run game fully. Clemson still needs to make UNC one dimensional and hope its front seven can get to Maye and punish him without giving up the explosive passes like they did over and over last week.

Andrew Mukuba has hopefully taken a long look in the mirror and is ready to focus on getting back to the player we all know he can be. Clemson has to play the first half without R.J. Mickens, who has been playing very well, due to the targeting call last week. Tyler Venables is still dealing with a bad hamstring. That has left true freshman Sherrod Covil and walk-on Carson Donnelly as the next men up. Donnelly came out for at least one snap that I saw and the Gamecocks immediately ran a WR screen to his side and he couldn’t deal with the block. Covil did OK and at least didn’t bust like Mukuba had been doing. If UNC can crack 30 points you have to think Clemson is in serious trouble. NCSU and GT were able to prevent that from happening while Notre Dame built such a large lead that a lot of UNC’s points were essentially equivalent to the late scores Clemson produced in South Bend.

Special Teams: This was such a huge mismatch last week that it is hard to write about here. Ironically the Gamecocks didn’t have to block a punt or run a fake to decisively win this phase. They just created turnovers, nailed punts over and over again, and punished Clemson for a poor punt in the early third quarter. Clemson’s outstanding kicker B.T. Potter wasn’t even given a chance to be a difference maker. Very, very disappointing and special teams has played a very large role in both the Clemson losses this season. UNC is probably feeling the same way seeing their FG kicker seal last week’s loss with a miss.

Overall: Clemson limped badly into the 2011 ACC Championship game and put together a great performance in blowing out favored VT. I can only hope this year’s team can play clean and if they do lose, make it because UNC just played out of their minds. Clemson can’t lose to Clemson like it did last week.

DraftKings has Clemson as a 7.5 point favorite, but that seems to be optimistic given the Tigers recent performance, and UNC’s offense.

I’ll just throw on my orange glasses one more time and say Clemson 31-UNC 29 and brace myself.