There was nothing North Carolina could do about the vast swaths of orange that filled the stands Saturday. Clemson, having long ago clinched the Atlantic Division, got to the ACC Championship game first, and its fans snapped up nearly every available ticket. All that was missing was a rock and a hill to make it a Clemson home game, in anticipation of a coronation for the No. 1 team in the country.
There was something the Tar Heels could do about that, or at least they tried. They nearly led at halftime, only to give up a late Clemson touchdown and two more quick ones to start the second half. And they dug themselves out of that hole to get within a touchdown late and nearly recover two onside kicks – one recovered but ruled dubiously offside, the second bouncing around but recovered by Clemson.
There was nothing North Carolina could do then. Having waited 35 years for an ACC title, the Tar Heels will have to wait a little longer. Clemson is going to the College Football Playoff after a 45-37 win. North Carolina is probably going to Orlando’s Russell Athletic Bowl, having won 11 games between two losses at Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium.
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“There’s a lot to be proud of,” North Carolina guard Landon Turner said. “We were competitive in this game and I still think we’re one of the better teams in the country. It was a special ride for me, being a senior. A lot of successes, a lot of firsts, a lot of history-making across the board for us.”
In the aftermath of the season-opening loss to South Carolina, North Carolina quarterback Marquise Williams promised to atone for the three interceptions that were a big factor in the defeat. Over the next 11 games, he did, leading North Carolina to a Coastal Division title and into the national semifinal discussion, getting the Tar Heels back to Charlotte. As promised.
He struggled again Saturday, although this time it had more to do with Clemson’s defensive line than anything else. Williams threw another red-zone interception, but it was tipped at the line, allowing Cordrea Tankersley to cut in front of Quinshad Davis. That pick would prove critical; Clemson drove 97 yards for a touchdown to go up 28-16, a terrible fake punt gave Clemson the ball back immediately, Clemson scored immediately and it was enough of a cushion to carry the Tigers to the win, narrowly.
The Tar Heels fought valiantly, scoring with 73 seconds to go on a Williams pass to Ryan Switzer, then recovering the onside kick only to be called for what certainly appeared to be a phantom offsides, and then wasn’t reviewed, the ugly coda to an embarrassing year for ACC officials.
“That was a blown call, obviously,” Switzer said. “Anyone who’s seen the picture or the replay knows it was blown. But one play doesn’t lose you a game. We would have liked to have got that. With our offense, we can score anywhere on the field. One minute with three timeouts would have been plenty of time. Frustrating, definitely. It didn’t lose us the game, but it was a blown call.”
That saved the College Football Playoff committee a long Saturday night of contriving reasons to keep North Carolina out of the semifinals. Clemson did enough to win, justifying its No. 1 ranking, nailing down its semifinal spot and making a late Heisman push for Watson. The Tar Heels came close, but couldn’t close the deal.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. North Carolina came a long way, not just from last season but from three months ago, when it looked like the Tar Heels were going to spend another season mired in mediocrity after that very disheartening loss to South Carolina. They turned the disappointment of that loss into the grist for a very special season. What happened Saturday doesn’t change that.
“That’s the best team I’ve ever played in my entire life,” North Carolina running back Elijah Hood said. “I won’t lie. That was a very good football team. And I think we’re a very good football team.”
In 1980, when the Tar Heels won their last ACC title, a win over Clemson was the deciding game. A year later, when both teams were ranked in the top 10, Clemson’s win over North Carolina helped springboard the Tigers to a national title.
In an improbable quirk of history, if North Carolina had beaten Clemson on Saturday, that again would have clinched an ACC championship. Instead, Clemson’s win over North Carolina may again springboard the Tigers to a national title.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock