On Dec. 5, 2015, Myles Dorn sat in a sports bar near Bank of America Stadium and watched North Carolina, one of two teams he was heavily considering in his college recruitment, come up just short against Clemson, the other team in his top two, in the ACC Football Championship game.
The Tar Heels' 45-37 loss didn’t sway the safety’s decision — he’d actually committed to UNC the day before at Vance High School — but it did reinforce a preference he’d developed: playing for the underdog.
“Being a part of building something great is better than just joining it,” the senior safety said this week, “and that's what I wanted to be a part of.”
Four years later, as they prepare to host Clemson, the reigning national champion and No. 1 team in the country, Dorn and his UNC teammates are, again, the underdog.
The Tigers are 4-0, with a 24-10 win over Texas A&M and three double-digit smackdowns. The Tar Heels, meanwhile, sit at 2-2 after a 34-31homeloss to Appalachian State. The point spread for Saturday afternoon’s game at Kenan Stadium says as much: Clemson is currently favored by 26.5 points.
In conversations with UNC players Tuesday, a theme of opportunity emerged. Linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel said North Carolina must strike a balance: play loose, with nothing to lose, without deviating too much from standard procedure.
At the same time, he’s seen “a little bit of a different feel” around the locker room this week. North Carolina hasn’t hosted the AP No. 1 team since 1999, when Florida State came to Chapel Hill. As for a reigning national champion? You’d have to go back to Tennessee in 1951.
“Even if you do go through four or five years of college football, how many times do you really get to play the No. 1 team in the country?” Gemmel said. “Most teams don't get to. We're going at it full force this week, trying to shock the nation.”
Clemson has a plethora of talent: a likely No. 1 overall draft pick in sophomore quarterback Trevor Lawrence, offensive weapons all over, a defense that lost four starting linemen to the NFL and hasn’t missed a beat. UNC’s players don’t mind the hype; it is, after all, deserved.
“They're a really good football team,” offensive lineman Jordan Tucker said. “The media knows that. The world knows that ... Everybody's going to brag on the No. 1 team in America.”
Dorn has tried to combat any nerves with a simple message to teammates: “Hey, we’re ball players, too.” Yes, Clemson averages 42.2 points per game and, on average, allows just under 250 yards per game on defense. Yes, Lawrence has NFL scouts salivating, and the Tigers are riding a 19-game win streak. At the same time, Dorn said, they are still a college football team, just like the Tar Heels.
If anything, Clemson provides a litmus test for a .500 UNC team that still very much controls its destiny in the ACC Coastal Division.
“It's about competing and seeing where you stand,” Dorn said. “And what better team to compete with than the No. 1 team in the country?”
Sam Howell, UNC’s standout first-year quarterback, concurred.
“These are the games you wish you were playing,” he said, “so I’m just going to go out there, have fun and give it my best shot.”