Friedlander: Even without Playoff implications, ACC title game a meaningful matchup
You have to be of a certain age to remember it, but the NFL once had a postseason game called the Playoff Bowl. It was more or less a consolation prize for teams that finished 2nd in their respective divisions and was played the week before the league championship was decided.
It became obsolete when the playoffs were expanded after the NFL and American Football League merger and eventually was phased out in 1970 because of a lack of interest.
That, essentially, is what Saturday’s ACC Championship Game has become.
The matchup between 24th-ranked North Carolina and No. 10 Clemson isn’t completely meaningless. A league title will be decided, after all. And that’s still a big deal, especially for the Tar Heels, who haven’t raised a championship banner in football since 1980.
But when it comes to the national consciousness, the battle at Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium is a modern-day version of the Playoff Bowl. It’s little more than an afterthought compared to championship tilts in the other Power 5 conferences.
ACC Coastal winner UNC’s College Football Playoff hopes ended 2 weeks ago with a loss to Georgia Tech, the 1st of 2 straight setbacks to end the regular season. Atlantic champion Clemson saw its chances evaporate Saturday at the hands of rival South Carolina.
Having both division winners limping into Charlotte off losses with no shot at getting into the final 4 is a downer, for sure, As is the fact that all eyes in college football will be focused elsewhere.
That doesn’t diminish the importance of the game to those involved. And if they’re previous championship game meeting during 2015 is any indication, they should put on an entertaining show regardless of the stakes.
Clemson won that game 45-37 in a controversial finish that saw UNC’s chances of a late comeback snuffed out by a dubious offside call that nullified a successful onside kick.
Then as now, the Tigers were a prohibitive favorite in the game. The opening line for Saturday’s rematch is a touchdown.
But there are any number of reasons why this year’s game figures to be much closer than projected by the oddsmakers.
The biggest is the quarterback matchup.
UNC’s Drake Maye has been among the most prolific passers in the country this season. He has completed 67.7% of his attempts for a single-season school record 3,847 yards, 35 touchdowns and only 5 interceptions while also rushing for 629 yards and 6 more scores.
Even though his production has slipped over the past 2 games, greatly diminishing his once-realistic Heisman Trophy hopes, Maye remains a dangerous offensive weapon, especially surrounded by receiving talent the likes of Josh Downs and Antoine Green.
Clemson’s defensive front has been riddled by injuries and its secondary, which will be without safety RJ Mickens for the 1st half because of a targeting ejection, has been susceptible to the deep ball.
That is Maye’s specialty if he gets the time to throw it.
DJ Uiagalelei, on the other hand, has been in a pronounced funk since the midway point in the season.
The U in DJU stands for “ugly” based on his play since being pulled in the 2nd half against Syracuse on Oct. 22. He’s been intercepted 5 times during the past 5 games and was held to only 99 yards on 8-of-29 passing during Saturday’s 31-30 loss to the Gamecocks.
His spotty performance led to speculation he might be replaced as the Tigers starter for Saturday’s ACC title game. Although coach Dabo Swinney dispelled those rumors during a teleconference Sunday, Uiagalelei likely will have a short leash with freshman sensation Cade Klubnik waiting in the wings.
One thing Uiagalelei will have going in his favor is a UNC defense that ranks dead last in the ACC in both scoring and yards allowed, and has made the 4th-string quarterbacks at Georgia Tech and NC State look like stars over the past 2 weeks.
As bad as the Tar Heels’ defense has been, it has had a knack for making big plays at important times. That ability could be UNC’s saving grace against a self-destructive Clemson offense that has averaged 3 turnovers during each of its past 5 games.
The Tigers, however, will have the advantage if the outcome is decided by a late kick.
While the Tar Heels’ Noah Burnett is suspect after missing a pair of short field-goal tries during the double-overtime loss to the Wolfpack, including the attempt that ended the game, Clemson’s B.T. Potter has been much more reliable. He has made 17 of 20 attempts this season with a long of 52 yards.
When it comes to motivation, there’s plenty to go around on both sides.
It has been 42 years since UNC last raised an ACC football championship banner. That’s the accomplishment that bypassed coach Mack Brown during his 1st tenure in Chapel Hill and would help raise the profile of his program at a school much more famous for its success in men’s basketball.
Swinney’s program doesn’t need the boost. It’s already a brand name on the gridiron with 3 national titles to its credit, 2 of which have come under the current playoff system.
Even without the opportunity to participate in this year’s tournament, it’s important to the Tigers to regain the ACC supremacy that slipped from their grasp in 2021 after 6 straight titles.
The contrast between teams, their strengths and their histories make for an intriguing matchup that, like a tree falling in the woods, has the potential to make a lot of noise.
Even if the rest of college football isn’t around to hear it.