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UNC vs. Clemson in the ACC Championship: pregame thoughts and three keys for UNC

North Carolina quarterback Marquise Williams celebrates the Tar Heels 41-38 victory over Georgia Tech on Oct. 3. A win over Clemson Saturday night would give the Tar Heels their first ACC championship in 35 years.
North Carolina quarterback Marquise Williams celebrates the Tar Heels 41-38 victory over Georgia Tech on Oct. 3. A win over Clemson Saturday night would give the Tar Heels their first ACC championship in 35 years. rwillett@newsobserver.com

The flags are up in Charlotte. Clemson flags. North Carolina flags. Orange flags. Blue flags. Hanging off the windows of cars driving down South College here in downtown Charlotte, hanging off of poles standing in parking lots where people have already started to tailgate.

The ACC Championship game – North Carolina vs. Clemson – is still more than seven hours away from the time that I’m writing this. There’s an electricity here, though, and an energy. It feels like an event. It’s palpable.

And rightfully so. A Clemson victory secures the Tigers’ place in the College Football Playoff. A North Carolina victory would give the Tar Heels their first ACC championship in 35 years. This is probably the most anticipated ACC Championship game in the 11-year history of the event. It’s also among the most important games in UNC football history.

We’ve been writing about it all week and, well, I’m just going to go ahead and say it: We’ve done some strong work. I hope you’ve read it all. Before some pregame thoughts, a collection of our stories, in case you’ve missed any:

A story about Marquise Williams’ season coming full circle.

And about UNC’s defense preparing for its most significant test amid some recent challenges.

A look inside the explosiveness of UNC’s explosive offense – and 35 football fields worth of explosive plays.

T.J. Logan has been something of a forgotten man in UNC’s offense, but perhaps that changes.

UNC’s 1980 ACC championship team would like a little company, please.

UNC’s Marquise Williams and Clemson’s Deshaun Watson are more similar than different but their experience levels contrast – as do their journeys to this intersection.

On the technology that allows UNC coach Larry Fedora to know when his players are “busting it.”

What a job Gene Chizik has done with this UNC defense – award-worthy, you might say.

And Fedora had a vision that looked something like this, you know – it was the getting here part that he never anticipated.

A different look at a familiar question: Where would the Tar Heels be if not for that loss against South Carolina?

And oh, by the way: is this the biggest game in school history for UNC?

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And some thoughts:

--Where does this game rank in terms of importance in the history of the UNC football program? I addressed the question in that last story linked above but let’s expand on it. The ACC Championship game is bigger than the 1997 game against Florida State. It’s bigger than any, probably, since either the 1980 or 1981 season.

But I’d argue it just might be the biggest game in school history. Not counting a bowl game, which are all basically exhibition games, anyway, outside of the top-level ones, when’s the last time UNC played in a game in which a victory would result in a significant championship? Has it ever happened? Beat Clemson and UNC is the ACC champion for the first time since 1980. It’s as simple as that.

That’s why, to me, this is perhaps the biggest game in school history. A victory ends a long, long ACC football championship drought in Chapel Hill, and maybe – just maybe – it sends UNC into the College Football Playoff.

–But, about that. Maybe I’m wrong on this but here it is: It seems in recent days that the public perception has turned against UNC, and that the national pundits aren’t giving the Tar Heels much of a chance to make the College Football Playoff with a victory against Clemson. Now the pundits never have given UNC much of a shot, anyway, so this isn’t new or different. But I don’t know. Whatever momentum UNC had going in terms of public perception seems to have cooled.

Which doesn’t really matter, until you realize how much of the College Football Playoff field is based on perceptions. And the perception out there about UNC seems to be more this:

“UNC lost to a bad South Carolina team and played two FCS teams, and therefore doesn’t deserve a playoff spot if it beats Clemson.”

Than this:

“If UNC beats Clemson, it will have the best win of any team in the country, will have won 12 consecutive games, and will have won its conference – and thus will be deserving of a playoff spot.”

At the risk of sounding like a complete homer, a thought of which might amuse many people who have emailed me over the years, my thought is this: UNC deserves to be in the playoff if it beats Clemson. If that happens, the Tar Heels will have won 12 consecutive games and will have beaten the No. 1 team in the country, thus giving UNC the best win in the country.

Yes, the South Carolina loss was abysmal. But in the timeline of a college football season, that happened eons ago. And as badly as UNC played that night offensively, it still lost a neutral site game by only four points. The Tar Heels unquestionably were the better team that night, but lost. They essentially fell down before the finish line of an 800-meter sprint. By the end of the race it was clear UNC was the better team but it didn’t finish.

Another thing no one talks about, too: Steve Spurrier quit on his team. If he doesn’t abruptly retire in the middle of the season, does South Carolina finish 3-9? Who knows but I’d venture to say the Gamecocks would have probably finished with a more respectable record had Spurrier not bailed on them.

The main point is this, though: Why would UNC’s first game of the season count more than its final game of the season? Why would a loss against South Carolina in early September outweigh a victory against Clemson in early December? If the Tar Heels win, they should be in.

--This has to be the kind of environment for the ACC Championship game that the ACC envisioned years ago. Of course in the early years of its existence the championship game was in Florida with the anticipation that Florida State and Miami would be meeting year after year. Or, at least, that they’d both make the game more often than not.

Instead, we’re still waiting for the first Florida State-Miami championship game. But UNC-Clemson, in Charlotte, is a dream for the ACC. I’ve been to SEC Championship games in Atlanta, and there’s a similar vibe surrounding the ACC Championship game here in Charlotte. Two top-10 teams. Two schools within a two- or three-hour drive of Charlotte. Two hungry groups of fans.

It almost makes those miserable environments in Jacksonville for Wake Forest-Georgia Tech (2006) and Boston College-Virginia Tech (2007) worth it, doesn’t it John Swofford?

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Three keys for UNC:

1. Turnovers – forcing them and limiting them.

Tar Heels have committed three in each of their past two games. That can’t happen on Saturday night. Not in the least. Sounds basic, and so cliché, to say turnovers will be the most important aspect of the game for UNC but it’s true. (After all, remember what happened in the opener?) If UNC plays a clean game it stands a great chance. The Tar Heels were at their best in that three-game turnover-free stretch against Pittsburgh, Duke and Miami. Meanwhile, UNC’s chances go up significantly if it can play a clean game and force Clemson into some turnovers. The Tigers have committed 10 turnovers the past three weeks, so turnovers have been a problem for them of late.

2. Rising to the moment.

Clemson has been on these stages before, having played important games and really good competition. UNC hasn’t done that. This is the most important game any UNC player has ever played in. It’s probably the most important game of Larry Fedora’s coaching career. What kind of advantage does the Tigers’ experience give them? They’ve played, and beaten, Notre Dame and Florida State this season. UNC’s best win is probably on the road at Pittsburgh on Thursday night. Games like these aren’t new for a Clemson program that has been here before. The same can’t be said for UNC. Are there any jitters for the Tar Heels? Does it take them a while to settle in? In short: How do the Tar Heels react to everything that comes with playing in one of the biggest games in school history?

3. Limiting the big plays.

UNC can score with Clemson. There shouldn’t be any doubt about that. UNC has one of the best big-play offenses in the country. But so does Clemson. One way UNC can turn the game in its favor: limiting the big plays – the ones that Deshaun Watson made with regularity during the Tar Heels’ 50-35 loss at Clemson last season. Clemson has made 14 plays of at least 40 yards this season (one fewer than UNC) and the Tigers have eight plays of at least 50 yards. That ranks tied for 12th nationally. There are likely to be a long list of game-changing, momentum-swinging plays tonight, and if UNC has more of them you have to like the Tar Heels chances.

So that’s it: avoid turnovers and force them, rise to the moment and limit the big play and UNC will have an excellent chance to win. Does it happen? Wouldn’t be surprising. Clemson, though, just has a lot of experience in these kind of games. It seems that’d matter a lot, having been here before. Then again, the Tar Heels just seem to be in the midst of one of those magical, special seasons that defy explanation.

Prediction: UNC 41, Clemson 40.

Less than six hours to go now …

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