At this point, it’s really hard to deny that this year’s ACC Championship is doubling as a playoff “play-in” game. Yes, North Carolina has one loss and yes, the Tar Heels never really played any good teams at all during the regular season, but there’s a simple counterpoint to both of those arguments. The first is that several teams have a baffling early-season loss to an inferior team and are still ranked pretty highly in the eyes of the committee. Oklahoma lost to Texas, Stanford lost to Northwestern, Alabama lost to Ole Miss, and yet all of these teams are rolling pretty much everyone right now and thus have been given a nod by the committee. Even Ohio State a year ago had that weird loss to Virginia Tech when they were still trying to figure out their identity after Braxton Miller was ruled out for the season. And as for the “they ain’t played nobody” thing, sure, the Tar Heels schedule isn’t impressive in terms of competition, but what it lacks there it makes up in margin of victory. To put it simply, the Heels have dunked on just about every mediocre team they’ve played (other than that loss to South Carolina). Yeah, Virginia Tech played them close, but you could argue the Hokies were fueled through November by Frank Beamer‘s retirement announcement, and they were trying to get bowl eligible to keep his streak alive. But looking at most of their other games; Miami, Duke, NC State, and seeing how the committee is beginning to recognize their high-level play by ranking them 8th in the standings, it’s safe to say that if UNC can win, they’re in. There’s just one problem with that…
Clemson Is Clearly The Better Team On Paper
There’s no denying that the Tigers have just about every statistical edge in this one. Deshaun Watson has been spectacular all season, and even when games are close and Clemson looks mortal, he repeatedly makes plays that justify them being ranked as the top team in the country. Not only that, but Clemson’s defense has looked particularly good at times this year as well. Sure, they sometimes give up a lot of points and get caught up in shootouts that Watson and the offense have to bail them out of, but they’ve also shown that, when they’re on, they’re good enough to slow down Dalvin Cook, hold Miami to one of its worst statistical games in years, etc. Comparatively, UNC just doesn’t stack up as well as you’d expect a team to in a conference championship game. I mentioned last week how outside of the first game of the season, Marquise Williams has had an excellent year, and that’s still true. However, he will be both playing the best defense he’s seen all season on Saturday, and expected to keep his offense’s pace at the level of probably the only quarterback in the ACC that has exceeded his level of play throughout the year. On the flipside of that, the Tar Heels defense has been anything but spectacular this season. Their defense isn’t even considered elite in their own conference, ranking 11th. That’s neither good nor what you’d expect from a team in a conference championship game, but because the Heels’ offense has been so good, especially lately, their defense has been able to play at sub-par levels and still win games. However, playing the only offense in the country that is better, statistically than themselves, the Tar Heels defense will have to play much better than it has at any point this season to matchup with the Tigers.
UNC Has The Edge In Intangibles
Intangibles typically don’t mean a damn thing when it comes to deciding who’s going to win a football game. Just look at Ohio State and Michigan a week ago. Prior to that game, the Buckeyes seemed torn apart via the fact that players were calling out the coaches, already declaring for the draft, etc., and it seemed as though the Wolverines were primed for the upset. And then Ohio State went out and put four quarters of hurt on them and that stopped all the narrative talk pretty quickly. But it needs to be said that the Tar Heels do actually have an edge here. Clemson finally looked mortal last weekend against South Carolina for the first time since a three-point win against Louisville in September. And yes, it’s easy to blame this on the “rivalry factor” but regardless, the Tigers actually looked beatable at the hands of a really bad time (that just happened to beat the team they’re playing this Saturday). Conversely, the Tar Heels have been excellent throughout most of November, especially offensively. If UNC can keep the momentum of their offense rolling through four quarters on Saturday, there’s no reason to think they can’t at least hang with the Tigers throughout. Also, the Heels have the advantage of already getting a loss out of the way this year. It’s a stupid thing but, again, worth pointing out: going undefeated in college football is pretty difficult to do. Yes we’ve seen a fair share of teams that have done it in the last few years, but in most cases those were very excellent teams. Clemson might be among their ranks, but even great teams lose. That added pressure could be an issue for the Tigers if the game is tight coming into the fourth quarter.
Sure, Clemson Will Probably Win
That’s about as confident as I can be in the Tigers. Yeah, they’ll probably win, and they’ll likely do so handily. But of all the conference championship games this weekend, this is the one I’d probably feel the least confident in giving a team a 100% guarantee of victory…which means Clemson will likely win by three or four scores.