North Carolina continues the season against Clemson on Saturday at Memorial Stadium. Aaron Brenner covers Clemson for The Post & Courier in Charleston (one of my favorite cities, it must be said). I asked him some questions about the Tigers.
Andrew Carter: Both these teams are coming off of emotional, difficult defeats – though UNC lost a game in which it was embarrassed and Clemson lost a game it probably should have won. How have the Tigers reacted this week to the heartbreak in Tallahassee and what's their level of anticipation to play the Tar Heels?
Aaron Brenner: Of course, it's not like players can just shake something like that off - when you're thiiiiiiiiiis close to knocking off the champs. You're right, UNC's coming off the type of loss like what Clemson dealt with after the 2013 FSU defeat, not the 2014 version. But the way college football players are trained to think today, it's next-game-up mentality, so at least they've sounded optimistic about approaching a manageable three-game homestand. However, we'll see if they walk the walk come Saturday night in Death Valley.
AC: Deshaun Watson arrived at Clemson a highly-rated quarterback prospect and he played for the first time, and played well, against Florida State. He'll start his first college game on Saturday. What went into that decision, to give him the starting job over Cole Stoudt?
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AB: Cole Stoudt was the team's best quarterback in spring football practices. Cole Stoudt was the best in summer drills, and the best in fall camp. But the games are the true mark of a player, and Stoudt proved to be serviceable - which isn't bad, especially on a team supported by this defense - but hardly perfect in Chad Morris' offense, which is what Deshaun Watson was put on this earth to run. Dabo Swinney insists Stoudt will still play, which leaves the door open to throw him in there similar to how Watson was used vs. Georgia and S.C. State, but man, if Watson finds the goings a bit easier against UNC's defense than FSU's, it'll be hard to take him out of there.
AC: Clemson entered the season with no shortage of questions, overall, about the offense, given all the personnel losses there. How have the Tigers compensated in the early going for the loss of guys like Sammy Watkins and Roderick McDowell, and how is the offense different without those guys?
AB: Good question, with different answers for the two players mentioned. Nobody's replacing Sammy Watkins, but one of the more underrated storylines leaving Tallahassee was some great plays made by the receivers. For instance, we still don't know how Mike Williams, touted The Next Watkins, contorted his body to catch that deep ball setting up Watson's go-ahead 4th-quarter TD plunge. Charone Peake is getting healthier, and Artavis Scott is a budding star in his own right. The passing game will be fine. However, the running backs have a lot of work to do. They've made reasonably good decisions, but nobody's broken out a run longer than 14 yards against FBS opponents, and nobody's been particularly close to doing so. At some point, somebody from the group of four (senior D.J. Howard, junior C.J. Davidson, redshirt freshman Wayne Gallman and true freshman Adam Choice) has to separate himself. Will it be against UNC? We'll see.
AC: The Tigers defense ranks 12th nationally, which is even more impressive given Clemson has played Georgia and Florida State already. We know about Vic Beasley and the defensive line, but what are some other things that make this defense special – and is it the Tigers' best under Dabo Swinney?
AB: That last part remains to be seen, only in that those 2009-10 defensive lines were pretty good with Jarvis Jenkins, Da'Quan Bowers, Andre Branch, etc. And those two years also yielded top-20 defenses; but they also didn't have Chad Morris pushing tempo on the offensive side of the ball, meaning they weren't on the field as often. So yes, this squad under Brent Venables has the potential to be dominant. And while they've already faced highly-ranked teams like Georgia and FSU, neither of those units ran with anywhere close to the type of speed North Carolina operates with. Believe it or not, Marquise Williams will be the best quarterback Clemson has seen this fall - don't forget, similarly-skilled guys like Connor Shaw and Braxton Miller shredded the Tigers at the end of last season. But on nights when linebacker Stephone Anthony plays with his hair on fire, and the secondary flies to the football, yes, this Clemson defense is awfully stout.
AC: UNC doesn't often make the trip to Death Valley these days, so for some of my loyal readers making the trip for the first time, what should they know – how early should they arrive, and are there any must-visits around campus – about traveling to a game at Clemson?
AB: Glad to help. First things first: it's a 7 pm kick, but 7 am would not be too ridiculously early to arrive. That's said only in that Clemson, S.C. has very few routes leading into town, and traffic can get quite nasty at the inopportune times. (If there's a bright side, tailgaters have the whole day to arrive, which spreads out traffic - as opposed to noon starts, which are dreadful.) Bowman Field's a nice open area which has hosted GameDay in the past, and it's the link between the academic buildings/non-revenue athletic facilities (hit up Historic Riggs Field, the soccer complex!) and the main drag of shopping and restaurants, where BGR has some tasty burgers. The Smokin Pig in nearby Pendleton is a little barbecued slice of heaven. Lake Keowee's not too far away from the stadium, and this weekend should provide some lovely fall weather without it being too hot. The most famous joint in town is the Esso Club (129 Old Greenville Hwy), an 81-year-old watering hole converted from, you guessed it, a gas station. My understanding is tailgaters are reasonably friendly and welcoming, so long as you're not wearing garnet and black.
Thanks to Aaron for his time.
Andrew Carter is the UNC athletics beat reporter for The News & Observer and Charlotte Observer. Follow him on Twitter @_andrewcarter .