by Sharon Thorsland
It’s been a roller coaster of a season for North Carolina. The #24 Tar Heels started off unranked, then started winning and made it all the way to number 10 in the polls before coming back down to earth after a pair of ugly losses to end the regular season. But the Tar Heels (9-3) still nabbed the Coastal Division title and now face #10 Clemson in the ACC Championship game on Saturday night. Kick-off is set for 8:00 on WBT.
Clemson (10-2) had national title hopes to start the season but the Tigers are out of the playoff picture after a pair of upsets, most recently a disappointing loss to South Carolina last week. But they’ve got an NFL-ready defense that will no doubt give UNC’s explosive offense plenty of trouble. The Tar Heels lead the ACC averaging over 37 points per game, led by star quarterback and newly crowned ACC Player of the Year Drake Maye. They’ll need a big game from him and star receiver Josh Downs as the Tigers defense is excellent against the run, allowing just 99 yards per game – that’s 9th in the nation. Defensive end Myles Murphy leads the team with 6.5 sacks, and defensive tackle Tyler Davis is a run-stopper with four sacks. Maye and the Tar Heels struggled offensively against Georgia Tech and NC State, so they need to get back on track to have a chance in this one.
The star of Clemson’s offense is Will Shipley. The running back is a do-it-all player who is second in the ACC in rushing yards per game and rushing touchdowns, and he’s also a threat at receiver and in the return game. The Tigers have a talented quarterback in DJ Uiagalelei. The junior has been inconsistent this season but has the potential to hurt you through the air and on the ground. UNC has struggled for years now to stop the run, but has been better recently, giving up 138 yards per game over the past three games.
It’s been a while since these teams played each other. In 2019 the Tar Heels were a failed 2-point conversion from upsetting the then top-ranked Tigers. Before that they hadn’t faced off since the 2015 ACC Championship game, which the Tigers won 45-37. So UNC certainly would like a little payback for both of those games. And there is plenty more riding on this one – the conference championship is up for grabs, plus the winner gets a bid to the Orange Bowl. And UNC hasn’t won an ACC title in 42 years – that’s a long wait! It won’t be easy but I say UNC wins this one in a shootout. Go Tar Heels!