Dwindling marbles: Stakes lowered for UNC, Clemson

Losses by both teams take the luster from the ACC Championship Game

UNC wide receiver Josh Downs (11) will try and help the Tar Heels win their first conference title since 1980 when Carolina and Clemson meet in the ACC Championship Game on Saturday in Charlotte. (Mike Caudill / AP Photo)

Make no mistake, Clemson and UNC will still be playing for all the marbles in Saturday’s ACC Championship Game in Charlotte. It’s just that both teams hoped the number of marbles would be much greater.

The ACC title will still be at stake, of course, as will a berth in the Orange Bowl. Normally, however, the winner of the game can hold out hope of a berth in the College Football Playoff. When Clemson is in the game, as it has been seven of the last eight seasons, those CFP hopes are all but a certainty — win and the Tigers are in. That’s because in their last six trips to the ACC Championship Game, Clemson has been ranked No. 1, 2 or 3 in the nation.

This year is different, however. Clemson enters the game with two losses, as many as the Tigers had in the previous six trips combined (against 68 combined wins, as compared to this year’s 10.) UNC enters with three losses. The five combined losses would be enough to disqualify the game’s winner from any playoff scenarios, but the fact that three of them have occurred in the last two weeks further tarnishes the league’s biggest game of the season. It also has both Clemson and Carolina fans, well … losing their marbles.

“I asked the team, ‘Would you have taken 9-3 in August?’” UNC coach Mack Brown said. “I’m going to be proud of this team and not going to beat them up.”

“Most people coach and play this game for a long time and never get the opportunity to be involved in these types of championship games,” Clemson defensive coordinator Wes Goodwin said, “So they know the importance of that and winning the ACC is one of our goals and that’s the next goal presented to us.”

While both teams are saying the right things, there’s no doubt that the Tigers and Tar Heels have a twinge of disappointment as they prepare for a game with just the ACC title on the line. Clemson’s national title hopes took a hit with a loss to Notre Dame to start the month, but the November-ending upset loss to rival South Carolina last weekend dealt the fatal blow to any playoff hopes.

UNC also had just a single loss, also to Notre Dame, when it clinched the ACC Coastal Division three weeks ago. But the Tar Heels haven’t won since, losing back-to-back home games to unranked opponents. Georgia Tech shut down the UNC offense and ended any hopes of Drake Maye winning a Heisman Trophy this year, and last week’s loss to NC State was salt in the wound for Tar Heels players and fans.

That leaves both head coaches looking for ways to motivate their teams for the title game, even if their horizons for the season have shrunk dramatically since Thanksgiving.

The task is made even more difficult due to uncertainty on both sides of the field.

It’s not often that a head coach entering championship week gives his starting quarterback a vote of confidence, but Clemson coach Dabo Swinney delivered one on Sunday after DJ Uiagalelei had an 8-for-29 passing day against South Carolina, managing just 91 yards. His backup is true freshman Cade Klubnik, who has a total of 99 passing yards in eight games this season.

While Swinney said Uiagalelei was still the starter, it seems that Klubnik will be loose and ready in the bullpen.

“Yeah, DJ will start the game,” Swinney said. “That’s where we’ll start at.”

Offensive coordinator Brandon Streeter admitted the team was “still in discussion about how we can utilize Cade” in the game.

Over at UNC, there’s no doubt that Maye is still the starter. While he’s struggled the last two weeks, the defense is the bigger concern for the Tar Heels. UNC already lost three starting defensive linemen for the season at the start of the month, and the Tar Heels’ pass rush has suffered ever since. Now the secondary is getting ravaged by injury. Storm Duck, Cam’Ron Kelly and Tony Grimes all left the NC State game with injuries, and Brown said all three would be evaluated this week.

In their places are a pair of true freshmen in Marcus Allen and Will Hardy, along with sophomore Lejond Cavazos.

“We’re going to count on those guys moving forward to finish out the rest of the year and play a lot of snaps,” said UNC defensive coordinator Gene Chizik. “I was very proud of them. And the moment was not too big for them.”

The moment should not be too big on Saturday, either, not in a championship game where marbles seem to be in short supply this year.