Clemson out to squash hopes of No. 20 North Carolina

North Carolina holds a national ranking and Clemson doesn’t.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way in mid-November. The No. 20 Tar Heels still have aspirations of playing for the championship of the Atlantic Coast Conference, which Clemson has dominated over much of the past decade.

This puts the host Tigers, who have shown a recent resurgence, in a spoiler’s role when the teams meet Saturday in Clemson, S.C.

“They’re the old Clemson again,” North Carolina coach Mack Brown said of the Tigers, who won two College Football Playoff titles in the past eight years. “They’re playing like a playoff team. They’re protecting the ball, running the ball so well. … They dominated a Georgia Tech team that beat us.”

Some preseason projections had this game as a potential preview of the ACC title game. That’s not the case, though North Carolina has a slim chance of advancing.

The Tar Heels (8-2, 4-2), who would need to beat Clemson and win next week at North Carolina State to stay in contention for the ACC title, should know more about their status prior to Saturday’s kickoff. By that time, the game between Louisville and Miami should be done, and a Louisville loss would keep UNC in contention for the spot opposite No. 4 Florida State in next month’s title game.

Brown wasn’t thrilled earlier this year when the schedules came out and he saw his team going to Clemson and rival NC State in consecutive weeks to end the regular season. It still looks like a daunting task.

“We’ve got to get up and go,” Brown said. “I’ve always loved to go on the road and play in great places. Not many people have won there (at Clemson). What a great challenge for us.”

Clemson (6-4, 3-4) has toppled then-No. 15 Notre Dame and Georgia Tech in trying to resurrect its season.

“We’re starting to play how we knew we could,” Tigers coach Dabo Swinney said. “Our defense has played well enough to be a playoff team. But we haven’t done our part offensively taking care of the ball.”

The Tigers have a solid running back tandem with Will Shipley back from injury. He and Phil Mafah combined for 173 rushing yards in last week’s 42-21 rout of Georgia Tech. Cade Klubnik threw for four touchdowns.

Clemson has won 23 of its past 26 November games.

“All that gets your players’ attention,” Brown said. “(The Tigers) get everybody’s attention because they are who they are. They’re really, really good at everything they do. They just had a year where it was uncommon for them that they turned the ball over and weren’t forcing turnovers as much as they have in the past, but now they’ve corrected that.”

North Carolina is trying to build on a 47-45 double-overtime victory against Duke. That came with a couple of situations that had to go the Tar Heels’ way to avoid defeat.

“It’s amazing how that one play makes a difference,” Brown said of the mood around his team.

In addition to quarterback Drake Maye, North Carolina has an offensive threat with running back Omarion Hampton. He’s the ACC’s leading rusher with 1,236 yards, including 169 in the Duke game.

North Carolina leads the ACC in scoring at 39.9 points per game.

Among those who’ll try to slow down the Tar Heels is Clemson freshman cornerback Shelton Lewis, who made his first career start last weekend. That resulted in an interception that was returned 46 yards for a touchdown.

Still, the Tar Heels with Maye will try to target the relatively young Clemson defensive backs.

This is a rematch of the 2022 ACC championship game that was won 39-10 by Clemson, which has swept the past five meetings overall with the Tar Heels.