ACC championship game: It’s steady Clemson, surprising UNC and sold-out stadium

The best thing about being 11-0 and ranked No. 1 in the college football standings? Clemson coach Dabo Swinney says that’s an easy one.

“Because of some of the successes we’ve had, perceptions change,” Swinney said. “Nobody can say anything to us anymore. There is not a more consistent program anywhere in the nation, on or off the field.”

Consistency was nowhere to be found when Swinney took over in 2009. But Clemson has won 20 of its past 21 games, falling only to defending national champion Florida State in 2014.

If Clemson is deep into the process of changing perception, then North Carolina’s football program is more at the outset. The Tar Heels will play the Tigers in the ACC championship game at Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium the evening of Dec. 5.

The ACC championship game has drawn tepid fan interest some years. Not this time. The game sold out this week in an NFL stadium that holds in excess of 73,000.

The Tar Heels are a surprising 10-1 and undefeated in the ACC at 7-0 heading into Saturday’s game against rival N.C. State. Regardless of that result, North Carolina clinched the ACC’s Coastal Division and a shot against Clemson in the title game.

Clemson will play non-conference rival South Carolina Saturday.

Next week’s matchup between Clemson and North Carolina was far from destined. The Tar Heels lost 17-13 in their opener Sept. 3 to South Carolina, also at Bank of America Stadium, where former Charlotte Mallard Creek High star Marquise Williams threw three interceptions that killed promising drives.

Fans vented afterward that Tar Heels coach Larry Fedora was mismanaging his talent, under-utilizing tailback Elijah Hood, the former Charlotte Catholic star. Now Hood is third in the ACC in rushing with 1,060 yards and a 6.2 yards-per-carry average.

Strong player leadership

As different as these programs’ situations were in August, they share a trait – exceptional leadership from veteran players. Swinney says his team is easy to coach because the players police themselves, sticking to task and guarding against complacency.

“All the guys are so willing, so bought-in to the process,” said Clemson tight end Jordan Leggett, an All-America candidate with 27 receptions and four touchdowns.

“We don’t have any more distractions on this team. I agree it’s a whole lot better at taking coaching and applying it to daily practice. I definitely agree this team is more coachable than the last two.”

Swinney says he and his staff focus more on the process than the undefeated record. If they were 10-1 or 9-2, he’d be just as proud of this group’s habits.

“The ball can bounce funny ways sometimes – bad things can happen – but I love our guys,” Swinney said. “They practice the right way, they believe in what they do and they care about each other. It’s fun to come to work with them.”

The Tar Heels completed the 2014 season 6-7 with one of the worst defenses in major-college football. Three games last season North Carolina allowed opponents to score 50 or more points. Additionally, they lost 47-20 to Miami and 40-21 to Rutgers at a bowl game in Detroit.

After that season Fedora took two major steps: Shaking up his defensive coaching staff with the hiring of former Auburn coach Gene Chizic as coordinator and organizing a team meeting to air internal issues.

“It had the impact I was hoping it would have because you wanted to clear the air,” Fedora recalled of the January meeting.

“We wanted to start fresh and we wanted to make sure everybody realized why we were having the issues we were having. If you don’t talk about them, face them, own up to them, then you’re going to continue to have those problems, and I think they did a really good job of (correcting) that.”

Linebacker Jeff Schoettmer still pinpoints that meeting as the day everything changed.

‘I didn’t think it was possible (to reach the ACC championship game) until that meeting Jan. 5, 6, whatever it was,” Schoettmer said. “I can’t stress enough how important that meeting was. That really just changed the dynamic of our team.

“And then coach Chizik and his staff coming in; I think they’re the best defensive staff in the country.”

Chizik won a national championship at Auburn (with the Carolina Panthers’ Cam Newton as his quarterback) and another championship as Texas’ defensive coordinator.

Chizik was the only candidate Fedora wanted to hire and the results have been dramatic: In 2014 the Tar Heels allowed an average of 39 points and 498 yards. This season the Tar Heels allow 19.5 points and 384 yards per game.

Dream big, plan ahead

That Clemson will be in Charlotte is no surprise. Despite losing 10 players to NFL training camps last spring, the Tigers were picked as the preseason favorites to win the ACC.

Depth is abundant. Clemson lost star wide receiver Mike Williams to a neck injury in the season-opener against Wofford, but the offense – built around Heisman Trophy-candidate quarterback DeShaun Watson – is potent, averaging 38 points and 501 yards per game. Swinney has played 28 freshmen this season, including starting left offensive tackle Mitch Hyatt.

When Clemson took the “interim” tag off Swinney’s job title in 2009, he had some blunt conversations with his bosses. He told them the football office was severely understaffed and if they continued to function as they had, they could expect the same mediocre results.

He also told them scheduling tough non-conference opponents was essential to re-establishing a national profile. This issue came to a head when some in the athletics department advocated dropping a future series with Georgia.

“There were certain things people were saying about the ACC or saying about Clemson,” Swinney recalled. “The only way we were going to change that was to win consistently and to beat people outside your conference. That’s what we’ve done.”

In recent seasons the Tigers have beaten LSU, Oklahoma, Ohio State, Georgia and Auburn. Their 24-22 home victory over Notre Dame this season is probably the top line of a resume that could make them the top seed in the four-team national playoff.

Years ago, Swinney vowed that if the Tigers ever had a season like this one, there would be no second-guessing about strength of schedule. In addition to South Carolina, the plan is always to play another nationally prominent non-conference team.

“We’re not going to have to worry about going undefeated and not being in the party,” Swinney said.

North Carolina’s aspirations weren’t as stratospheric as Clemson’s, but they were still aggressive. Since the end of last season Fedora has opened every team meeting the same way: “Coastal Division champs, state champs.”

The Tar Heels can clinch that unofficial state title by beating the Wolfpack Saturday after having already beaten Wake Forest and Duke. They clinched the Coastal Division when they beat Virginia Tech 30-27 in overtime Nov. 21.

It’s been 35 years since North Carolina last won an ACC football championship. In 1980 they went 7-0 in the conference and 11-1 overall. So reaching this year’s title game was in itself a feat.

“We knew all offseason that we had the pieces in place to be a special team. (Winning the Coastal Division) sets the tone for the rest of the season, going forward,” said linebacker Shakeel Rashad. “By no means do we feel like we’ve reached the end of our season.”

It’s unlikely that upsetting Clemson would be enough to thrust the Tar Heels into one of four spots in the national playoff. But at minimum a 12-1 North Carolina team would be guaranteed a spot in a “New Year’s 6” as the ACC champion.

The most likely NY6 game would be the Peach Bowl, but the Fiesta Bowl is also a possibility. An 11-2 or 10-3 Tar Heels team might go to the Russell Athletic Bowl in Orlando.

“We knew that we had to change things around here. We wanted to leave a legacy. We wanted to be remembered as something,” said quarterback Williams. “The way these guys are committed to each other, the way we love each other – we’ve been through so much.”

Bonnell: 704-358-5129; @rick_bonnell

Andrew Carter: 919-829-8944, @_andrewcarter