North Carolina heads back to Charlotte, this time with an upset of Clemson and an ACC title in its sights
For the second time this season, the North Carolina Tar Heels will board buses and head to Charlotte for a chance to beat a team from South Carolina. The first time, the Tar Heels failed, losing their season opener to South Carolina—the only blemish on the team's record in 2015. Now, after winning 11 consecutive games, it's Clemson who will be waiting at Bank of America Stadium.
As much pressure as there is to open a season with a win, the intensity on Saturday evening when the Tar Heels and Tigers face off will be even greater. Though it's a veteran UNC team, it's not one that has played in any marquee matchups during their time in Chapel Hill.
Senior quarterback Marquise Williams threw three interceptions in the game against South Carolina, and he didn't take the loss lightly. He's invested in improving his performance this coming Saturday.
"Three times I made the same mistake," Williams said after the loss to South Carolina. "They were rookie mistakes ... Put it all on me."
However, after throwing those three interceptions in the loss against South Carolina, including two in the end zone, Williams has rebounded. He's thrown just five interceptions in the last 11 games and has come up in crucial conference matches against Duke and NC State.
But it hasn't been all about Williams for UNC. Tailback Elijah Hood has enjoyed a breakout season in 2015 to emerge as one of the game's most exciting runners. Hood is a top-20 running back in the nation when it comes to yards per carry (6.7) and touchdowns (16). It's a fair bet that Hood will get the ball early and often when the Tar Heels lineup against the 7th best defense in the nation.
But one of the biggest criticisms of the UNC offense is that Hood hasn't gotten the ball enough, especially in high-leverage situations.
In the fourth quarter of the South Carolina matchup, Hood found himself on the sidelines instead of in the backfield. Since that evening in Charlotte, Hood has been at the forefront of coach Larry Fedora's offense.
When the season started Hood said he wanted to be the most dominant runner he could possibly be, whether it's 15 carries or 40 carries.
"I just want enough carries to win the football game—whatever that may be," Hood said at the dawn of the 2015 campaign. Fedora emphasized this is more of a mentality than anything else.
"I've been saying it all year that this team has a lot of grit," Fedora said. "That started right after the first game, and has only gotten bigger every game."
Defensively, UNC will face its biggest challenge of the season when Deshaun Watson, a Heisman Trophy hopeful, lines up against a surprising defense engineered by coordinator Gene Chizik.
The Tar Heels might use a spy, they may blitz more than usual, or they could draw up something new. But Fedora made it clear, an ACC Coastal Championship isn't something the team is willing to settle for.
"When it's all over with, maybe I can sit back, smoke a cigar, and think back on it, but for right now, we're fixing to play the number one team in the country," Fedora said. "We don't have time to kick our shoes off and throw our feet up. We've got a lot of work to do."
David Allen is SI's campus correspondent for the University of North Carolina. Follow him on Twitter.