Matt Goldin: First off, you’re our resident Tar Heel Tiger. Tell the readers a little about how your fandom formed.
Alston Meadows: I was actually a fan of both schools throughout my childhood. I grew up going to every Duke basketball game, but being the little rebel I was, I wanted my own team. UNC was the only team that could beat Duke somewhat regularly in that time, and most of my friends in the triangle were Carolina fans, so I joined in with them. Also when I was really little, my favorite color was orange and my favorite animal was the tiger. One year at the ACC tournament, Clemson and FSU were playing their annual matchup in the 8/9 play-in game (when there were only 9 teams in the league). I saw Clemson’s orange uniforms and asked my dad what their mascot was. He said the tigers, and the rest is history.
Fast forward 10 or so years and I applied to both schools. Not sure I should say this on this blog, but I didn’t get into UNC but did get accepted to Clemson so I went there. After 2 years I realized my grades were good enough to transfer, so I reapplied and wound up getting in. It was hard to leave, but that in-state tuition was too good to turn down. Oddly enough, my first year at Carolina, both schools lost the national title game in their respective primary sport, only for both to turn around and win it the next year.
Matt: Now on to the game: If you had talked to me in October I’d have been sure that UNC was going to wreck Clemson. Now, we sit here and Clemson is an 8-point favorite and I feel good going into this game. While we know about Clemson’s turnaround, what has led to UNC slipping over the last few weeks?
Alston: The Heels were enjoying their best start to a season since 1997, having beaten Miami 41-31 in only the third ranked vs ranked matchup at Kenan Stadium with fans in the seats since Mack Brown left Chapel HIll for Texas in 1998. Then, flashbacks of a certain bad word that starts in C and ends in lemsoning as they blew double-digit leads at home to Tony Elliott’s Virginia and on the road at Georgia Tech. The latter was UNC’s staggering 7th loss as a double-digit favorite in only the fifth year of Mack Brown 2.0.
As for reasons behind this, a lack of focus would just about sum it up. Costly penalties, dropped passes, turnovers, and a regression to the mean from a defensive line that had been lights out early in the season. The Tar Heels looked much better for most of the Duke game though (before nearly blowing another double-digit lead in the 4th quarter) so it will be interesting to see which version shows up at Death Valley on Saturday.
Matt: Last year Cade Klubnik came off the bench against UNC in the ACC Championship and lit the Tar Heels up. Mac Brown stated that it was because UNC, understandably, had only prepped for DJ Uiagelelei and had nothing ready for Cade. Obviously Cade will be the focus of the Tar Heel defense this year, but are there any weaknesses in that defense that you think Cade and Clemson will exploit?
Alston: I’m going to sound like a boomer here but the key is really to establish the run. Our mutual friend, the South Carolina Gamecocks, had a grand total of negative 2 rushing yards against the Tar Heels in the season opener. This includes a hilarious nine sacks — it’s bull that it’s 2023 and sacks are still counted against rushing yards — but it goes to show that if the running game isn’t working, the Carolina defensive front and pin its ears back and make life difficult for the opposing QB, and the whole thing just clicks. Contrast that with the absurd 348 yards Georgia Tech managed against the Heels in the upset win, and you’ll see why Clemson should have its way if they can get Phil Mafah and Will Shipley going on the ground.
Matt: Drake Maye vs Clemson’s defense is going to be a battle. Who else on the UNC offense should Clemson fans be keeping an eye on?
Alston: Probably the biggest storyline around Carolina football this year has been WR #9 Tez Walker, who was initially ruled ineligible for this season due to being a 2-time transfer, despite the fact that his first school, NC Central, never played a football game while he was there due to the COVID-19 pandemic which cancelled the season for his school. After a long PR and legal battle, Walker was eventually ruled eligible on October 5. He immediately showed why he was worth the wait, as he already leads the team in receiving despite missing the first four games of the year. He’s averaging 100 yards/game with 6 TDs in just 6 games and has been invaluable as a downfield target for Drake Maye.
Outside of Maye and Walker, RB #28 Omarion Hampton has had a phenomenal year, averaging 123 yards/game with 13 TDs on the ground. The balance that a threat like Hampton gives to this offense has been key in alleviating pressure on Drake Maye and has made the Tar Heel offense a spectacle to watch when it’s firing on all cylinders.
Matt: How do you see this game playing out? And more importantly: are you repping orange or light blue?
Alston: These games are always hard for me. It’s like watching your kids try to beat each other up. I just want everyone to get along! I typically side with the team that has more at stake, which might just be Carolina in this game. Both teams are out of contention for the ACC title game, but at least Carolina can still reach 10 wins, which would be extra funny considering our friends in Raleigh have only achieved that mark once in their history (this goes along with their 30+ year ACC title drought in the 3 major men’s sports). I’m nothing if not a hater, so a chance to get one over on NC State might just push me to wear blue this weekend.
As for predictions, I think this matchup comes at a good time for the Tigers. Clemson seems to have found its stride in recent weeks with big wins over Notre Dame and Georgia Tech. Meanwhile, the Tar Heels have looked a bit shaky in the back half of the season with the two aforementioned losses as well as a less-than-convincing win over Duke’s third string QB. I think Carolina has enough offense to cover, but the Tigers take this one 35-31.
Matt: And finally, which college town do you prefer more: Chapel Hill or Clemson? What does Chapel Hill do better than Clemson and what does Clemson do better than Chapel Hill?
Alston: It’s a bit of an unfair fight because I left Clemson before I turned 21, so I never really got the proper TTT’s experience and never got to take Sammy Watkins up on those free beers. That being said, Franklin Street in Chapel Hill has the quintessential college town vibe, and there’s nothing quite like the tradition of students rushing Franklin after beating Duke or winning a national title in basketball.
On the flip side, Clemson’s football culture and especially tailgating culture are in another universe compared to Carolina. I’ve always loved how basically the entire Clemson campus turns into a giant tailgate lot on game days, whereas in Chapel Hill parking is limited to just a handful of lots several hundred yards away from the stadium and, God forbid, parking decks, and the tailgating scene suffers for it.
In short, I won’t choose and you can’t make me.
Thanks Alston for stopping by, and here’s hoping your “good” side is happy on Saturday! Follow Alston on Twitter @Alston_Meadows.