Saturday will be an historic day for the Atlantic Coast Conference. For the first time, two conference football teams ranked in the top 10 will face one another, and much of the nation will watch (WJLA-TV-7, 12:35 p.m.) on what is expected to be a mild, sunny day at Kenan Stadium.
Unbeaten Clemson, which has managed to ignore the threat of postseason NCAA probation, is ranked No. 2 in the nation, North Carolina No. 8. This ACC game of the year will decide which team is likely to represent the conference in a major bowl. At the same time, in this old stadium tucked among the Carolina pines, the players will try to show the television audience that basketball is not the only sport played in this part of the country.
Clemson has been healthy all season; Carolina has not. But Saturday, Kelvin Bryant, the Tar Heels' devastating tailback, is expected to see some action after missing four full games and most of a fifth because of a knee injury.
Bryant's return could not come at a more fortuitous time as far as UNC is concerned because Clemson has been almost immovable against the run, allowing only 92 yards a game through the first eight weeks of the season.
Bryant, a junior, had rushed for 575 yards and 15 touchdowns in a little more than three games when he went down early in Carolina's 28-3 victory over Georgia Tech. He underwent surgery and it was thought he would miss the rest of the season. But his recuperation has been much faster than expected. How much he plays depends on how his knee feels after warmups and on the tenor of the game.
Clemson is 8-0, 4-0 in conference play. Carolina is 7-1, 3-0 in the ACC, and would all but wrap up the conference championship with a win, since it has only Virginia and Duke left after Clemson. The Tigers, however, still have to face Maryland, a team they have lost to nine of the past 10 seasons.
Carolina has the home-field advantage but has not beaten Clemson at Kenan Stadium since 1971, losing three times and tying once. But the Tar Heels, who limped through their victory over Maryland last week, are almost healthy.
Tyrone Anthony, who had subbed for Bryant at tailback, is expected to be back at 100 percent after carrying only nine times against Maryland because of a groin pull. Quarterback Rod Elkins, who sat out last week, will be available, although Scott Stankavage, 17 of 24 against Maryland, will start.
These are the ACC's dominant teams statistically. Carolina leads the conference in total offense and scoring offense, with Clemson second. The Tigers lead in total defense and scoring defense, with the Tar Heels second.
Both schools were upset by ABC-TV's decision not to televise the game nationally, making this the top regional game while showing Georgia-Florida nationally later in the day.
UNC Athletic Director Johnny Swofford said he was so upset when ABC called Monday that he was tempted to turn down the TV offer. Clemson Athletic Director Bill McLellan said he was glad it was Swofford's decision, because he might have turned down the regional offer. And ACC Commissioner Robert C. James spent much of the week angrily telling ABC that his conference felt slighted -- again.
Still, the game will be seen over a large portion of the country (50 percent to 60 percent of the football audience will see the game) and certainly there is a good deal of curiousity about the quality of these two teams. Clemson's defense has been superb, especially against Georgia, when the Tigers forced three Herschel Walker fumbles en route to a 13-3 victory.
Carolina has run up impressive statistics against a weak schedule and lost to South Carolina, 31-13, two weeks ago in a shocking upset. At that time, UNC was ranked No. 3 in the country.
There are scouts here from many bowls, including the Orange, Sugar, Cotton, Fiesta and Gator. UNC last played in a major bowl in 1950; Clemson in 1959.
Both coaches, Clemson's Danny Ford and Carolina's Dick Crum, have spent much of this week trying to make the other team sound unbeatable. Ford may have won the exchange when he was asked if he was preparing for Bryant and Elkins, both listed as questionable.
"We're preparing for Bryant, we're preparing for Elkins," Ford said. "Heck, we're preparing for Lawrence Taylor in case they bring him back from the pros."