Larry Fedora: North Carolina deserves to be in playoff with win vs. Clemson
CHARLOTTE, N.C. >> Larry Fedora believes his North Carolina Tar Heels deserve a spot in the College Football Playoffs if they snap Clemson's 15-game winning streak Saturday night in the ACC championship.
"I most definitely do," The Tar Heels fourth-year coach said Friday at a news conference. "If we beat the No. 1 team in the nation, then I believe this team deserves to be in the College Football Playoff."
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney agrees.
"We've got three top-10 teams in this league," Swinney said. "I don't think there's any question that the ACC should be in one of them games. But what do I know? I just hope we're the one there."
A win would be a big boost for the Tar Heels' (11-1, 8-0 ACC, No. 10 CFP) resume given the national stage, but wouldn't guarantee them entry into the playoff.
The eighth-ranked Tar Heels would likely need outside help to leapfrog the teams ahead of them.
But first there is the matter of beating Clemson (12-0, 8-0 ACC, No. 1 CFP).
Earning their first ACC championship in 35 years means the Tar Heels will have to slow down sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson, the ACC player of the year and a Heisman Trophy candidate.
Swinney said Watson is the "complete package," comparing him to former New York Yankees relief pitcher Mariano Rivera.
Watson has never lost a game as Clemson's starting quarterback.
"He really doesn't have a weakness," Swinney said. ".... He's a tough one to beat. He's not perfect. He's not some superhuman man. He makes mistakes, but you're going to have to beat him. I mean, he's not going to beat himself."
Fedora knows that.
Watson torched North Carolina for 435 yards passing and a school-record six TDs last season. The Tar Heels defense has improved dramatically this year under new coordinator Gene Chizik, but will face the best quarterback — and perhaps wide receivers — they've seen all season.
"He can extend plays," Fedora said. "And the thing I think that's most impressive about him is his poise. I don't think you ever see him get rattled. ... They've got a rock that they can rely on, and I think he makes it extremely difficult for a defense."
Some other things to know about Saturday night's ACC championship game:
DO-OVER: North Carolina's only loss came on this field to South Carolina in Week 1. In that game, senior quarterback Marquise Williams threw three interceptions, two in the end zone, while the Tar Heels curiously only gave just 12 carries (none in the red zone) to top tailback Elijah Hood in the 17-13 loss to South Carolina. Don't expect the latter to happen again; Hood ranked second in the ACC in with 1,280 yards rushing and 16 rushing touchdowns. If Williams avoids the turnovers, the Tar Heels can score with anybody.
DABO'S 100TH GAME: Swinney is leading his 100th game. Swinney, in his seventh full season, said it's hard to control when you reach a milestone. "A lot of people's 100th game is against East Taboga Community College and it is what it is," he said. "But to the ACC championship game with your 100th, it's special."
A BIG RETURN? In a game with both teams boasting prolific offenses, the Tar Heels could find an edge with punt returner Ryan Switzer. He's returned two punts for touchdowns of 78 and 85 yards this season, and has seven for his career — one shy of matching the NCAA career record. Punt returns are an area of emphasis for UNC and directed by Fedora personally, so the Tar Heels could help their chances by springing Switzer for a big one.
PAST TITLE TILTS: The last time North Carolina and Clemson played with so much at stake may have been Nov. 1981, a 10-8 Tiger victory that was part of their 12-0 national championship run. Clemson was ranked second and the Tar Heels eighth, marking the first-ever meeting of top 10 teams in ACC history. Clemson prevailed — and remained undefeated — when defensive tackle Jeff Bryant recovered a lateral in the fourth quarter. "There's only been one 12-0 at Clemson and we've tied that record," Tigers tight end Jordan Leggett said. "We're making history as we go."
DOMINANT STARTS: UNC has been downright dominant in the first half of games in November. They led 38-10 at half in a 66-31 win against Duke, 31-0 at half in a 59-21 win against Miami the following week. Then they ran out to a 35-7 lead in last weekend's 45-34 win at North Carolina State.
AP Sports Writers Pete Iacobelli in Columbia, South Carolina and Aaron Beard in Chapel Hill, North Carolina contributed to this report.
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