There’s only two ACC stadiums Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney has yet to win in. Pitt, where the Tigers have yet to play, and Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill. The last time the Tigers played at UNC was way back in 2010 during Kyle Parker’s final season at QB, a 21-16 loss. The Tigers finished 6-7 that season, their only losing season under Dabo Swinney, and the last time the program didn’t have at least 10 wins in a season.
The two programs have gone in quite different directions since then, with Clemson now one of the nations premier programs. The Heels however, are on their third head coach since 2010, and since winning the Coastal in 2015, have fallen on hard times. The team managed just 5 wins combined over the last two seasons, resulting in the firing of Larry Fedora and the hiring of Mack Brown, again. This is Brown’s second stint at UNC, and the Heels fans are hoping he can recapture some of the magic they found his first go around from 1988-1997. The Heels had three 10 win seasons during his first tenure and spent time ranked in the Top 5, but could never get by FSU.
It was evident fairly quickly in the Heels season opening win over UofSC that Brown’s leadership has already started a change in the programs culture. Six of the teams nine losses last season were by a touchdown or less. Three of those were by three points or less, and two of the losses came in OT. That team didn’t know how to win the close ones.
In that opening win over the Gamecocks, the Tarheels showed that will not be the case this season. The Heels came back from a 20-9 late 3rd quarter deficit to win 24-20. The next week vs Miami the Heels found themselves trailing 25-20 midway through the 4th, after having led 17-3 in the 2nd quarter. Again, they showed some fight, coming back to get the 28-25 win over the Canes. They followed that up with a road loss to Wake, and an embarrassing home loss to App State, both coming by less than a TD.
It will be interesting to see how this young Tarheel team responds with the top ranked Tigers coming to town. This is a young Tarheels team, led by a true freshman QB in Sam Howell. There are a lot of reasons for optimism within the program as far as the big picture goes, just maybe not so much as far as this weekend goes.
The Heels will want to try and establish the running game. They run a lot of counters and use a variety of RPO’s. Howell isn’t afraid to use his legs and they are likely to try and take advantage of that by trying to move the pocket in an effort to offset the Tigers pass rush. The UNC offense has gotten off to slow starts in all 4 games this season, and that is something they desperately need to avoid on Saturday. They do not won’t to have to play catch up in this one.
On the defensive side, the Heels struggled in last weeks loss to App State. The Mountaineers converted 7 of their 15 3rd down attempts, averaged 4.6 yards per rush, and put 34 points on the board. Another area of concern is their tackling. That is something they’ve struggled with at times during all 4 games. This week they get to try and tackle Travis Etienne, and he just happens to be one of the best backs in the country when it comes to yards after contact. Fail to wrap him up and he just might end up in the end zone.
Like we have seen in all 4 of the Tigers games so far, look for UNC to key on slowing down the Tigers running game. They are confident in their corners ability to play man, and aren’t afraid to bring that 7th, or even 8th guy into the box in run support. That should lead to some opportunities for Trevor Lawrence and the receivers in the passing game, and hopefully they can take advantage of them.
When it comes right down to it however, the fact remains that this Clemson team just has superior talent at every position on the field. There’s a reason the Tigers are coming in as 28.5 point favorites. UNC fans were heard chanting “We want Clemson” after their Week 2 win over Miami, and now they will get them.