Head coach Larry Fedora was roasted on radio sports talk shows in Charlotte the day after his North Carolina football team opened the 2015 season with a 17-13 loss to South Carolina in the Queen City. The Gamecocks were favored, but the Tar Heels gave it away with three turnovers and zany play calls.
What a difference an 11-game win streak makes.
Fedora on Saturday night will return to Charlotte with a No. 8-ranked team hoping to knock off No. 1 Clemson and ruin the Tigers’ College Football Playoff dream.
The same Tar Heels that lost to South Carolina (3-9) are easily the best opponent so far for Clemson (12-0).
Quarterback DeShone Kizer was facing his first big test as Clemson won, 24-22, at Death Valley on Oct. 3.
Quarterback Marquise Williams, in a groove, makes the Tar Heels much more dangerous.
With a victory, North Carolina deserves a playoff spot.
“Yes, I do feel that way,” Fedora said Sunday during a telephone news conference. “If we beat the No. 1 team in the country — which Clemson is the No. 1 team in the country and it’s a consensus No. 1 and they’ve been No. 1 for a long time — I believe that if that happens, our team is deserving, yes.”
And that would be the spot presently reserved for Clemson, a 6-point favorite in the ACC Championship Game.
At 12-0 vs. 12-0, the ACC would have its greatest championship matchup. There would be no playoff question about North Carolina, even if the Tar Heels still don’t have a win over a currently ranked team.
If not for those pesky Gamecocks …
I asked Fedora what he would say if given a chance to explain the South Carolina loss to the playoff committee.
“That was the first game of the year,” Fedora said. “We made some mistakes, we turned the football over and didn’t get it done. We played well enough to win, we just didn’t get it done.”
Fedora went on about the 11 wins.
“If you look at our body of work throughout the rest of the season and lining up 11 straight games, the games that we had to play on the road from Georgia Tech (38-31 win Oct. 3) to a short week against Pitt (26-19 win Oct. 29) that was ranked at the time, to playing in Blacksburg on the road when everybody in the country wanted Frank Beamer to win that game (30-27 overtime win at Virginia Tech), we found ways to do it.”
Maybe the Tigers should be the underdogs, with all their turnovers over the last three games (10 total in wins over Syracuse, Wake Forest and South Carolina).
Too many mistakes against North Carolina will mean a bittersweet trip to the Fiesta Bowl with no chance to advance. Clemson had only one turnover in its 50-35 home victory over North Carolina in 2014, and the Tar Heels still piled up 478 yards.
This year, UNC and Clemson are more evenly matched.
National rank in scoring offense: 11. North Carolina (41.3), 15. Clemson (37.9).
National rank in scoring defense: 17. Clemson (18.8), 19. North Carolina (20.8).
ACC rank in total offense: 1. Clemson’s Deshaun Watson (326.0), 2. North Carolina’s Marquise Williams (287.6).
Schedule strength: 47. Clemson, 63. North Carolina.
The Tar Heels are gradually more comfortable with new defensive coordinator Gene Chizik. The former national championship-winning Auburn head coach teaches to detail but has brought a simpler, more physical style than North Carolina played last year under former Clemson defensive coordinator Vic Koenning.
That North Carolina gave up only 17 points to South Carolina and lost is just part of what made that game so hard to swallow for fans wearing Carolina blue.
Also those two Skai Moore interceptions in the end zone.
And Fedora’s strange non-use of running back Elijah Hood in the fourth quarter.
The Tar Heels want Charlotte redemption. If they get it against No. 1 Clemson, they deserve a playoff date with No. 1 Alabama.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff