UNC secondary presents challenge to Clemson

Don't sleep on the Tar Heels -- star cornerback M.J. Stewart powers an impressive team up against their biggest challenge of the season.

| 11 months ago
(AP Photo/David Goldman)

(AP Photo/David Goldman)

UNC secondary presents challenge to Clemson

North Carolina in its present form (11-1 record, ACC Coastal Division champions) looks much different than anticipated after suffering an unsettling loss to a Steve Spurrier-led South Carolina team to kick off the college football season.

Despite the head-scratching start, Gene Chizik’s first year on the defensive side of the football in Chapel Hill has been impressive for the Tar Heel football program. After inheriting a unit that allowed a dismal 39.0 points per game and 497.8 yards allowed per game in 2014, the revamped scheme and overhauled approach has resulted in an overwhelming improvement of 20.8 points per game and 394.9 yards allowed per game in 2015.

A catalyst to North Carolina’s improved defensive play starts with one of the best cornerbacks in the nation, M.J. Stewart (+18.4 overall grade). The standout sophomore weathered a midseason suspension due to a violation of team rules, but bounced back to lead the Tar Heels with four interceptions, one forced fumble, and a second-team all-ACC selection on the season. As a whole, the Tar Heel secondary ranks in the top 10 overall in our grades on the season, with consistent play from Des Lawrence (+8.7 overall grade), Donnie Miles (+7.0 overall grade), and Sam Smiley (+6.0 overall grade).

Despite the success in the secondary (ranked No. 8 in pass coverage among all FBS teams) and an 11-game win streak, North Carolina continues to be on the outside looking in when it comes to the College Football Playoff. Fortunately for Larry Fedora’s team, the Tar Heels will have the chance to prove the doubters wrong. UNC is set to face the perennial No. 1 Clemson Tigers Saturday night to crown the 2015 ACC Champion in Charlotte, NC.

Heisman contender and top-five college QB Deshaun Watson will look to bust up the Tar Heels’ win streak and secure the top spot in the playoff for the Tigers. Watson (+32.9) and running back Wayne Gallman (+14.4 overall grade) will continue to rely on the team’s rushing attack, despite Clemson’s dismal run-blocking grade (-53.3 overall). The Tar Heels’ run defense, on the other hand, grades out impressively (+83.0 overall) and will be put to the test to try and contain Clemson’s one-two punch in the backfield.

Although the popular opinion heavily leans toward favoring the Tigers Saturday night, the Tar Heels (+235.6) grade out fifth overall, while Clemson clings onto the 32nd spot (+121.3).

While the North Carolina secondary has shined this season, they’ve yet to face a quarterback of Watson’s caliber. Watson owns the fifth-best accuracy percentage against Power-5 competition in 2015, presenting the Tar Heels’ corners with their biggest challenge yet.

Thanks to the support from Ohio Film Office.

  • Blah Blah

    So the NC run defense grades extremely well despite the fact they allow 4.7 ypc. Clemson gets over 200 ypg on the ground and you give them a terrible grade. Shows a lot of success has to do with scheme instead of raw talent. I think you need to take a hard look at your rankings PFF.