ED: As I reflect on our season, I think of our absolute nail-biter against Notre Dame in a torrential downpour. I think of our less-than-ideal first halves against both Florida State and Boston College. There have been plenty of challenging, nerve-wracking moments this year. Obviously, this game poses a new kind of challenge because so much depends on it, most notably a secured spot in the College Football Playoff. The Tigers haven’t had a break since week four of the season. And, as much as it truly pains me to say it, North Carolina has a solid team this year. The Tar Heels have arguably the second best running back in the conference in Elijah Hood, and defending an explosive run is something that the Tiger defense has struggled with all year. Also, Deshaun Watson’s one Achilles heel is interceptions (he’s thrown 10 this year), and I can see Carolina’s M.J. Stewart potentially presenting some problems defensively for the Heisman candidate. As for the venue, I don’t think the neutral site will be that much of an issue; Clemson fans travel absurdly well, and with this game being so close to Clemson, expect quite a large contingent in orange making it feel more like a home game in Tigertown. Nevertheless, yes, I would say this is the biggest challenge of the year, but I can’t wait.
DTH: North Carolina's defense has been much-improved under Gene Chizik and his 4-3 base scheme this season — they are 19th in the country in passing yards allowed per game, although they have still been susceptible to the run. Can you enlighten us into what specifically makes Clemson's No. 14 offense so good, and what makes Heisman candidate Deshaun Watson so dangerous?
ED: The Tiger offense is continuously solid because they have so many players that can contribute. Clemson has eight different active receivers that have caught at least one touchdown pass this season, and running back Wayne Gallman has powered into the end zone nine times. Watson has matched those nine touchdowns on the ground though, and his 27 touchdown passes are good for first in the ACC. Watson truly is a dual threat quarterback. Not only has he passed for over 3200 yards this season with a 70.4 completion percentage (good for third best in the country), but he is also the Tigers’ second leading rusher behind only Gallman. Watson led the team in rushing against South Carolina with 114 yards, and his 107 yards rushing against Florida State’s defense was a major factor in Clemson’s victory over the Seminoles. As far as intangibles, he thrives under pressure, and the leadership qualities he possesses as a true sophomore aid him in making sure his team also flourishes. He constantly keeps defenses on their toes with the amount of different plays that he is capable of quarterbacking, and it has been amazing to watch him grow all season.
DTH: Along similar lines, Larry Fedora has been running one of the most dangerous offenses in college football. Between dual-threat quarterback Marquise Williams, breakout running back Elijah Hood and a quartet of talented receivers, the Tar Heels have as many offensive weapons as anyone. How is Dabo Swinney planning on slowing UNC down, and what matchups should we be watching out for when North Carolina has the ball?
ED: Expect defensive end Shaq Lawson to be the primary defensive weapon, especially against quarterback Marquise Williams. Lawson ranks fourth in the ACC with 8.5 sacks and leads the Clemson defense with 20.5 tackles for loss. He has been one of the staples who stepped up in a major way when players like Vic Beasley and Grady Jarrett departed for the NFL. I predict a full defensive line effort to try to contain Hood; defending the run has been the one area in which the Tiger defense has sometimes struggled this season. Linebacker BJ Goodson and defensive end Kevin Dodd have been on fire as of late, and defensive tackles Christian Wilkins and Carlos Watkins have also been reliable guys who will be ready for Hood. As far as the secondary, Clemson has one of the best cornerbacks in the country in Mackensie Alexander, and I think opposing quarterbacks have underestimated the abilities of fellow cornerback Cordrea Tankersley and safety Jayron Kearse this season. Tankersley leads the defense with four interceptions on the year and Kearse is just all over the place in the best way possible, breaking up passes and recovering fumbles. I’m looking forward to seeing the three of them match up with any of Carolina’s receivers.
DTH: Score prediction?
ED: 34-31 Clemson. I think this game is going to come down to who has the ball last, and I believe in my team to get the job done. Go Tigers.