At one point during his pre-ACC Championship game press conference here on Friday Larry Fedora, the North Carolina coach, tried to remember the last time the Tar Heels had won an ACC championship in football.
“I mean, how many years has it been?” Fedora asked, before being told that it had been since 1980. “Thirty-five years? There’s people that have never seen it happen in their lifetime that are Carolina fans. I would say they’re pretty excited about it.”
Forget about whether this is the most significant game of Fedora’s four-year tenure at UNC. It clearly is that. A better question might be this: is UNC’s game against Clemson on Saturday in the ACC Championship the most important football game in school history?
The stakes on Saturday are big enough: UNC’s first conference championship since 1980. Then there’s the opponent: undefeated and No. 1 Clemson.
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And then the implications beyond. A victory keeps alive UNC’s hope of making the College Football Playoff. Fedora said, again, that UNC would be deserving of a spot in the four-team playoff with a victory on Saturday against Clemson.
“If we beat the No. 1 team in the nation, then I believe this team deserves to be in the College Football Playoff,” he said.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, meanwhile, said the ACC champion – regardless of who it turns out to be on Saturday – should make the playoff.
“I mean, we’ve got three top-10 teams in this league,” Swinney said. “You know, the third-best team in this league just beat the SEC East champion. We’ve got a pretty good league and getting better.. …”
Tar Heels inexperienced on this kind of stage
Clemson’s greatest advantage on Saturday might not be at the quarterback position, where Tigers sophomore Deshaun Watson has emerged as a Heisman Trophy candidate. It might not be on a defensive line that has helped Clemson compile 36 sacks.
No, the Tigers’ most significant edge might be their experience. They have been on this kind of stage before, both in a figurative and literal sense. Clemson was victorious earlier this season against Notre Dame and Florida State in marquee games that received national attention.
“Experience is always something that you never can replace,” Fedora said. “They’ve been here.”
Fedora attempts to keep things in perspective
Though UNC hasn’t exactly been on this kind of stage before, Fedora has reminded his players the dimensions of the stage, at least, remain the same as any other.
“They’re here to play a game, “Fedora said of his players. “They know that it’s 53-and-three-quarters (feet) wide and 100 yards long and all those things, and they’re going to go out there and play.”
Fedora at times on Friday sounded a little like Norman Dale, the fictional coach in the movie Hoosiers.
There’s a part in the film when Dale has his players measure the height of the basket to show that it’s the same as any other – championship game or not.
“I’ve told them, you’re not going to have to jump over any small buildings or anything to make this happen,” Fedora said. “Just go out and do the things that we do. I really think that’ll be enough.”