Much more is on the line than just the 2015 ACC Championship when No.1 Clemson and No.10 North Carolina meet in Saturday’s conference title game. A victory could mean a spot in the College Football Playoff as the rivals face off at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Clemson has been the best team in college football in the 2015 season, going 12-0 with wins against two teams that are ranked in the top eight in the latest AP Top 25 Poll. North Carolina has just one blemish on their record, going 11-1 with a loss to South Carolina in their first game of the year.
Even though they’ve been perfect this season, Clemson is far from a guarantee to defeat North Carolina. The Tigers are five-point favorites, according to vegasinsider.com, and the over/under is 67.5 points.
What’s at Stake?
More so than any other game on Saturday, the ACC Conference Championship Game could affect who makes the College Football Playoff. Both teams likely need a win to get in, but an upset could give multiple teams an opportunity to reach the postseason.
With an undefeated record at No.1 in all the polls, Clemson is virtually guaranteed to make the playoffs if they win on Saturday. But considering they faced just one ranked team on their conference schedule, the Tigers would have a hard time making the playoffs if they don’t end the season with a perfect record.
An upset for North Carolina would open the possibility of Ohio State or Stanford making the playoffs, assuming the Cardinal win the Pac-12 Championship. The Tar Heels were unranked just a month ago, but a win over No.1 Clemson would put them in the conversation to make the postseason, since it would give them a 12-game winning streak and the ACC Championship.
College Football's Best Player
Behind only Alabama’s Derrick Henry, Deshaun Watson has the best odds to win the 2015 Heisman Trophy. Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney recently called the quarterback the “best player in the nation,” and North Carolina could have a tough time winning if Watson plays like he has for most of the season.
Watson has thrown for 3,223 yards and 27 touchdowns on the season. The dual-threat quarterback has put up more impressive passing numbers as the season has progressed, averaging 334 passing yards in his last five games. Clemson’s closest calls have come in Watson’s worst passing performances. He threw for 199 yards and two interceptions when the Tigers beat Louisville by a field goal, and Watson only threw for 84 yards when the team squeaked by Notre Dame with a two-point victory.
While North Carolina is terrific against the pass, ranking 19th in the nation, Watson could be in for a big day on the ground. The quarterback should be able to take advantage of the Tar Heels' 107th-ranked rush defense. The Tar Heels give up an average of 208.3 rushing yards per game, and Watson is second on the team with 756 rushing yards. Running back Wayne Gallman has totaled 1,145 rushing yards on 5.3 yards per carry.
North Carolina's Running Game
North Carolina quarterback Marquise Williams can run the ball, as well, and he relies more on his legs more than Watson does. Williams and running back Elijah Hood are capable of breaking games open with their rushing ability, and they could give the Tar Heels a chance to stay in playoff contention.
Hood ranks 19th in the nation with 1,280 rushing yards, though he averages more yards per carry than 14 players that have more rushing yards than him. North Carolina ranks 11th in the country with 41.3 points per game, and they should be able to establish a rushing attack and move the ball. Since their loss in the season opener, the Tar Heels haven’t scored less than 26 points in any game.
Clemson ranks 17th in scoring defense and 24th in rushing defense, but they’ve had their share of poor performances. In back-to-back close games against Florida State and Syracuse, the Tigers’ run defense was abysmal. The Seminoles ran the ball 30 times for 197 yards, and the Orange totaled 242 rushing yards on 7.1 yards per carry.
Clemson has played a few close games en route to a 12-0 record, defeating five opponents by 10 points or less. The Tigers are the better overall team and having college football’s best quarterback should ultimately give them the victory, but Saturday’s game could be a shootout that comes down to the wire.
Predicted Score: Clemson over North Carolina, 38-35