Clemson is one win away from locking up a spot in the College Football Playoff, but the Tigers can’t afford to drop the ball, in the literal sense, in the ACC championship game against North Carolina.
Clemson turned the ball over 10 times in the final three games of the regular season, including three fumbles at South Carolina on Saturday.
The Tigers were able to overcome the miscues against Syracuse, Wake Forest and USC, teams that finished the season with a combined record of 10-26, but Clemson will have a hard time knocking off a Tar Heels team that has won 11 straight games if it doesn’t take care of the football.
“They’re disappointing. They’re always a concern, something we talk about all the time,” Clemson co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said following Saturday’s game. “Our guys know if you turn the ball over, you’re going to put the game in jeopardy. We talked about it all week, but still they found a way to get it out. That’s something we’re going to have to clean up as we start playing here these last few games.”
To Clemson’s credit, it did protect the ball in its two toughest tests of the year, finishing with one turnover against Notre Dame and none against Florida State. Deshaun Watson has thrown 10 interceptions this year, but only three of those came in the second half of the season.
“When we’ve had our backs against the wall in some of these games, whether it was Florida State or whatever, we’ve been able to either be even or win the margin,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said during a teleconference Sunday evening. “I think that’s going to be a critical factor for both teams.”
While Syracuse, Wake Forest and South Carolina struggled to take advantage of Clemson’s miscues, North Carolina has the offensive fire power to do so. The Tar Heels scored 38 or more points eight times this year, and put up 35 in the first quarter of a 45-34 win over N.C. State on Saturday.
“You don’t want to give a team like this short fields, because they’re going to score points,” Swinney said. “Whichever defense has the better night, and whoever wins that turnover margin, is probably going to win the game.”
Despite being concerned about turnover issues, Swinney doesn’t want to make them too big of a deal to his team. He doesn’t want the Tigers to lose the aggressiveness that has helped them reach this point.
“It’s just something where you continue to work on the fundamentals, but you don’t want to make too big a deal out of it and all of a sudden guys are playing tight and all of that,” he said. “‘Hey, let’s go play the game and be loose and we’ll live with whatever result we get.’”
Tigers vs. Tar Heels
What: ACC Championship
Who: North Carolina vs. Clemson
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte