Clemson has had plenty of chances this year to prove that they are a good team. But, as it stands now, the Tigers sit at 2-2 without a quality win. A road trip to Chapel Hill will give them another chance to put it all together.
Clemson offense vs. North Carolina defense
The progress the Clemson offense appeared to make against Auburn was a distant memory last week as the Tigers struggled mightily to move the ball against a stout Miami defense. Kyle Parker was a miserable 14-of-33 passing and accounted for four of Clemson's six turnovers, and he will have to shake off his lingering injury if he wants to post a better performance this week. The Clemson coaching staff voiced their displeasure with the efforts of their veteran receivers, and they have vowed to give more opportunities to their younger wideouts (specifically freshman DeAndre Hopkins). The Tigers desperately need to identify reliable targets in the passing game, or defenses will be able to zone in on stopping their running game. Andre Ellington continues to post big numbers on the ground, while Jamie Harper continues to struggle. Expect a greater disparity this week in the number of carries that each back receives. North Carolina entered the season with a highly-touted defense, but suspensions linked to an NCAA investigation of the school have depleted it. They continue to play without top defensive linemen Robert Quinn and Marvin Austin. They will get back all-conference safety Deunta Williams, but top cornerback Kendrick Burney is still serving his suspension. The Tar Heels still have playmakers in linebackers Bruce Carter and Quan Sturdivant, both of whom are All-ACC caliber. Without all of its best players, however, North Carolina is a middling 55th in the country in total defense (22.5 points allowed per game).
Key matchup: Andre Ellington vs. North Carolina linebackers
Ellington has separated himself as Clemson's best running back and should garner more opportunities against the Tar Heels. As stated earlier, the one unit of North Carolina's defense that remains intact is their linebacking corps -- and they are good, real good. Can Clemson get blocks on the second level, and can Ellington make these guys miss and spark the offense? That could be the difference in the game.
North Carolina offense vs. Clemson defense
For being the supposed weakness of this year's edition of the team, North Carolina's offense has been pretty successful. Quarterback T.J. Yates was under scrutiny coming into the season, but he has responded with over 1,000 passing yards in his first four games, including seven touchdowns and just one interception. Sophomore receivers Jheranie Boyd and Erik Highsmith have stepped in nicely in the absence of Greg Little, combining for 20 catches, 418 yards, and four touchdowns. Yates' favorite target, though, is Zack Pianalto (26 catches, 251 yards), one of the best tight ends in the ACC. The Tar Heels boast two good senior running backs in Johnny White and Shaun Draughn, who have combined for over 500 yards rushing and five touchdowns thus far. Clemson's defense has struggled this season after most expected it to be the Tigers' strength. The defensive line has played well, headlined by the elevated play of defensive end Da'Quan Bowers. The linebackers, however, have failed to make much of an impact in the first four games. Clemson's experienced secondary has been burned in the downfield passing game numerous times in the past two games, and North Carolina has the receivers to continue this embarrassing trend. Oftentimes the Clemson defenders look horribly confused prior to the snap, and this usually leads to a big play that kills any momentum the defense has built.
Key matchup: T.J. Yates vs. Clemson secondary
As previously mentioned, Yates has been a very successful passer in his senior year, and he has big receiving targets that can get open down the field. Clemson's secondary has been very susceptible to the big play, and if the defensive line can't bottle up Yates on every passing down, the defensive backs are going to have to step up and make some plays. We're looking at you DeAndre McDaniel.
Advantage: North Carolina
Dawson Zimmerman is tenth in the nation in punting (46.5 yards), and he could be an important factor in the battle for field position. Chandler Catanzaro hasn't attempted a field goal since his miss at Auburn, but he remains perfect on extra points. Marcus Gilchrist continues to make solid contributions in the kick return game. North Carolina kicker Casey Barth is one of the ACC's best. Freshman C.J. Feagles will handle punting duties, and safety Da'Norris Searcy is a decent return man.
Clemson has to have a sense of urgency going into this game. They've lost two in a row, and, while they had a chance to win both, they can't take solace in moral victories. North Carolina has a two-game win streak coming in, and they will be fired up at home as they look to continue heading in the right direction. This will be a one-possession game, and I think Clemson gets back on track with a close win.
Clemson 24 North Carolina 21