One thing will die this Saturday at Death Valley in Clemson: The Tigers’ national title aspirations or North Carolina’s realistic hope of playing in the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship Game.
No. 8 Clemson (7-0, 4-0 ACC), even with three impressive wins in the bank (Auburn, Florida State and Virginia Tech), will need an undefeated season to claim that it deserves the chance to play for the title more than Stanford, or the winners of the Big Ten and Big XII, all of which could finish unbeaten.
The Tar Heels (5-2, 1-2) need victories and help to win the Coastal Division.
By way of a loss to Georgia Tech, the Yellow Jackets own the tiebreaker over North Carolina should both teams finish with the same conference record; however, Georgia Tech could very well lose two more games – it plays Miami, Clemson and Virginia Tech in the next three weeks – but the point will be moot if the Heels lose to Clemson.
“...Playing in Death Valley will be a challenge for us,” Tar Heels interim coach Everett Withers said. “But I think we are excited about it, looking forward to it, and it ought to be a heck of a ball game.”
Like Miami coach Al Golden last week, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney was very complimentary of North Carolina.
“They’re a very, very complete football team, probably as good as anybody we’ve played, and really just a few plays away from being 7-0, as well,” Swinney said. “Very well coached. Coach Withers and his staff have done a tremendous job.”
A scary thought for North Carolina and the rest of the conference is that Clemson, which has scored 35 or more points in all but one game, has yet to play a great game, at least in Swinney’s mind.
“We really have not put it all together yet, and I’m anxious to see us do that,” Swinney said. “But hopefully down the stretch...we can become a little bit more of a complete team.”
After Florida State’s E.J. Manuel completed three passes of 50 or more yards against Duke last week, the Blue Devils are fully expecting Wake Forest, with the combination of quarterback Tanner Price and wide receiver Chris Givens, to employ the same tactic.
“They’ve done that all year long anyway. They’re going to take their shots,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said of the Demon Deacons. “We certainly are trying our best to prepare our guys to be where they need to be and play the proper technique, which gives you an opportunity. Doesn’t guarantee, but gives you an opportunity to defend.”
The rivalry between Duke and Wake Forest, which the Demon Deacons have won eight straight times, has produced more than 80 total points in each of the past four meetings.
“I think we’re playing a Wake Forest team that’s the best of the four I’ve faced since I’ve been at Duke,” Cutcliffe said. “...It’s going to always be a good, exciting game for the fans.”
Wolfpack coach Tom O’Brien can’t help but scratch his head about how poorly N.C. State’s luck has been this season.
“I mean, last year we missed two games (with injuries) on defense, win nine games and get ranked,” O’Brien said. “Right now we’ve already missed 24 games right now, my guys on defense.”
The problem has been the injuries have been on the defensive line, and have come at a bad time.
The Wolfpack travels to Charlottesville to play Virginia, who upset Georgia Tech last week largely in part to a great performance from its offensive line.
“They certainly were impressive last Saturday against Georgia Tech,” O’Brien said. “They’ve got two sophomore on the line on the right side, which is pretty impressive they’re playing at that level... it’s a very good line.”
Nick Piotrowicz can be reached at 407-9952 or at email@example.com.