After dropping the first game of their 2015 schedule, few expected the Tar Heels, who began the season unranked, to be anywhere near the ACC title game.
Yet here they are, winners of their last 11, and it doesn’t require a lot of vetting to figure out why North Carolina is enjoying its most successful season since Mack Brown — yes, that Mack Brown — coached the team in 1997.
The Tar Heels are producing cartoonish offensive figures, piling up 547.3 yards per game over the last month, including a season-high 703-yard effort against Duke.
“We feel like we can never be outnumbered by a defense,” head coach Larry Fedora said to Fox Sports recently.
Fedora’s outfit ranks fourth in offensive efficiency, 19th in Football Outsiders’ Offensive S&P+, and 11th in scoring offense (41.3 points per contest). Furthermore, there’s been a 51.7 percent uptick in ground game production per contest compared to a season ago.
Behind running back Elijah Hood (192 carries, 1,280 yards, 6.7 yards per carry, 16 touchdowns) and quarterback Marquise Williams (124 carries, 786 yards, 6.3 yards per carry, 10 touchdowns), the Tar Heels have one of the nation’s top running attacks. North Carolina averages 229.7 yards per game on the ground (18th most in the nation), and has averaged more than 300 over the last three weeks.
They’ll need all of that firepower just to hang around with Clemson in Charlotte.
Clemson is a program touting a merciless, elite-level defense. The Tar Heels have faced two programs — Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech — that rank in the top 50 in defensive efficiency. Clemson ranks No. 2, and has nine sacks in the past two weeks. Particularly up front, Clemson’s defense is littered with potential first-round NFL draft picks. Defensive coordinator Brett Venables’ legion of attackers held Florida State, a team that ranks 16th in offensive efficiency, to a season-low 13 points.
They swarm zone-reads, can load the box and impose their will on an offensive line.
However, it’s worth noting that Clemson has been gashed more in the running game in recent weeks than they were throughout most of the season. Opponents have amassed 180-plus yards on the ground three times in the past four weeks, after accomplishing the feat just twice in the first eight games.
“The margin for error is less because of the opponent,” Venables said recently.
If Venables’s defensive unit can hold Williams and Hood in check, Clemson will enjoy a landslide win and the team’s first conference title in four years. Either way, the Tigers should be chowing down on Papa Johns come Sunday.
Regardless of what happens Saturday, Fedora has accomplished plenty this season: North Carolina reached 11 victories for just the fourth time in program history. Clemson’s defense has been able to squelch opposing offenses all season — and if they make mincemeat of the Tar Heel rushing attack, they’ll waltz their way to an ACC title and a berth in the College Football Playoff.