Instant Analysis: Clemson beats UNC to win ACC title, clinch playoff berth
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — No. 1 Clemson stayed unbeaten by sinking No. 10 North Carolina, 45-37, on Saturday to win the ACC Championship at Bank of America Stadium. Here are three thoughts from the Tigers’ victory:
1. North Carolina had no answer for Deshaun Watson
The ACC title game was a matchup of two of the conference’s best offensive players in Tigers quarterback Watson and North Carolina quarterback Marquise Williams. But it was Clemson’s stellar sophomore who ended up stealing the show.
Watson completed 26 of his 42 pass attempts for 289 yards with three touchdowns against one interception and added 131 yards and two more scores on the ground. Early in the second quarter, with Clemson facing a 9-7 deficit, Watson capped a 12-play, 96-yard drive with a nine-yard run that pushed the Tigers ahead 14-9. After the Tar Heels scored again, he ended another drive with a one-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Leggett six seconds before halftime. Watson then helped break the game open after the break with three straight scoring drives.
It wasn’t long ago that many wondered how Watson would bounce back from a torn ACL suffered in 2014. But after Saturday, Clemson’s star can safely book a flight to New York for next week’s Heisman Trophy ceremony. As Heisman candidates often do, Watson shined on his biggest stage of the season—and North Carolina was powerless in stopping him.
2. The Tar Heels’ defense ran out of gas after a strong first half
On the stat sheet, Clemson thoroughly dominated the opening two quarters on Saturday. The Tigers outgained North Carolina 309 yards to 103, led the time of possession 20:44 to 9:16 and had 18 first downs to the Tar Heels seven before halftime. Yet North Carolina headed into the break trailing by a slim margin of 21-16, leaving hope for a second-half rally.
That feeling didn’t last long.
North Carolina lost any momentum it had on its first drive of the third quarter. Williams threw a red-zone interception to Clemson cornerback Cordrea Tankersley at the Tigers’ 4-yard line. The Tigers turned the takeaway into a 97-yard touchdown drive, the first of three straight scoring drives that helped Watson and company take control of the game. In between those Clemson drives, the Tar Heels’ managed a turnover on downs and a punt.
One of the stories of North Carolina’s season had been an improved defense under first-year coordinator Gene Chizik. But on Saturday that unit succumbed to a piping-hot Clemson offense that scored six touchdowns and put up 608 total yards. The Tar Heels put together a strong season after a 2014 campaign defined by defensive deficiencies. However, Clemson proved it was the better team in Charlotte.
3. Clemson can punch its playoff ticket
Clemson ensured the College Football Playoff selection committee didn’t have to fret over a one-loss North Carolina that won its conference title. Swinney and the unbeaten Tigers will reach a playoff semifinal after winning the ACC.
Clemson (13-0) will likely finish at No. 1 in the committee’s final set of rankings, which come out on Sunday afternoon. The last time the program boasted at least a 12-0 record, it won the national championship in 1981. Now the Tigers appear to be headed to the Orange Bowl semifinal, a venue that has been good to Clemson in recent history. The program beat Ohio State 40-35 in the Orange Bowl after the 2013 season. Now the Tigers will return to Miami to play for an even bigger prize.