Conference Championship weekend is here. The ACC Championship game poses a primetime matchup between two foes looking for redemption after suffering a loss in their regular-season finale.
Dabo Swinney and Clemson’s playoff hopes were all but eviscerated with their loss to Notre Dame in early November. After their 31-30 setback to South Carolina, morale is definitely at a low point around Death Valley. Still, a victory would be one of historic proportions, as the Tigers hope to become the first Power Five program since Alabama in the 1970s to win seven conference titles over eight years.
On the other hand, Mack Brown and the Tar Heels enter Bank of America Stadium riding a two-game losing streak, including a double-overtime heartbreaker to rival NC State on Senior Day last Friday. Yet, when you have one of the best quarterback-receiver tandems in the country and an offense averaging over 480 yards per game, you will have an opportunity to compete in any contest.
The last time the two teams faced off in the ACC championship game was in 2015 when Deshaun Watson and the Tigers snuck out of the Queen City with a 45-37 victory after a controversial offsides call on North Carolina’s onside kick attempt.
Here are three storylines about prospects in the ACC Championship Game.
Drake Maye May Be The Best Quarterback In The 2024 Class
Replacing a program pillar like Sam Howell is no easy task, but given Maye has Carolina Blue blood coursing through his family’s veins, Tar Heel fans were unperturbed by crowning the redshirt freshman as the successor. The Maye era in Chapel Hill started better than anyone imagined.
In his first two games, the 6’4” 220-pounder threw for almost 650 yards while maintaining a 9-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Adding a touchdown on the ground, he joined Lamar Jackson as the only player in the ACC since 2007 to be responsible for at least ten touchdowns through two games. His high production did not stop there, as Maye would go on to set the program record in single-season passing yards (3,819). If he records four touchdowns over the next two games, a very realistic outcome, he will pass Sam Howell’s single-season passing touchdown record set in 2019.
The North Carolina native is not only an elite thrower; he leads the Tar Heels in rushing with over 800 yards and has proven to be equally dangerous on the ground when not accounted for. In the last ten years, the only quarterbacks to average over 300 yards through the air and lead their squad in rushing yards were Patrick Mahomes and Johnny Manziel. Pretty good company in terms of prospects, huh?
The ACC Player of the Year is also a PFF darling and holds a passing grade of 91.2, which leads all Power Five quarterbacks with at least 300 dropbacks. His 39 Big Time Throws are tops among Power Five quarterbacks by a substantial margin, as the next-closest passer is Arizona’s Jayden de Laura (29). Clemson’s defense has been stout against the run as of late, holding opponents below two yards per carry over the last three games, a task that has not been done by the Tigers since 1991. If the Tar Heels are going to win this game, it will lie on the back, or arm for that matter, of the Myers Park High School product. This game likely comes down to the final possession, and even if the Tar Heels are playing catch-up at any point, Maye has been clutch in crunch time. He leads the nation with six second-half comeback wins, and at times when North Carolina was tied or trailing, he has completed 69 percent of his passes and thrown for 24 touchdowns.
Looking forward to the 2024 NFL Draft, are we looking at the first quarterback off the board? USC’s Caleb Williams has excellent production and the luxury of being on a nationally-branded team with plenty of media exposure. With Williams’ name all but for certain engraved into the Heisman Trophy, Maye is currently on the outside looking in. That’s fine. There are plausible arguments for both, which goes to show you how talented this upcoming crop of quarterback prospects is. Either way, these two might realistically be the two best quarterbacks in all of college football, regardless of class, but that’s a conversation for another day.
Josh Downs Doing Josh Downs Things
Many around the college football landscape wondered if Downs was capable of replicating his record-setting sophomore season, where the Biletnikoff semifinalist set Tar Heel records in receptions (101) and receiving yards (1,335). Despite suffering a lower-body injury in week zero against Florida A&M that forced him to miss two games, the junior ended the regular season leading the ACC with 83 receptions, including a three-game stretch of 37 receptions, which set an ACC record. Downs also amassed 929 yards on the year and added 11 touchdowns, trailing only Tennessee’s Jalin Hyatt, Ohio State’s Marvin Harrison Jr., Boston College’s Zay Flowers, and Purdue’s Charlie Jones, all of whom played in 12 games. The 5’10” 175-pounder has found the endzone 21 times in his last 24 appearances with the Tar Heels.
Over the last six games, only a handful of receivers in the country were relied upon more than Downs. The North Gwinnett High School product accumulated over ten targets in five of six contests. His 72 targets over that span were second among all Power Five receivers behind Iowa State’s Xavier Hutchinson. The Suwanee, Georgia native also caught 76.4 percent of on-target throws over that stretch, trailing only Tennessee’s Hyatt. The emergence of fifth-year receiver Antoine Green has been welcomed, and the blossoming tight-end duo of Bryson Nesbit and Kamari Morales has definitely played a role in Maye’s seamless transition to starting duties. But make no mistake; the Tar Heels’ pass game goes as far as Downs will take it, and despite his lackluster size, he will likely be hearing his name called in the first three rounds come April.
Death, Taxes, and Will Shipley
With the erratic and downright frustrating nature of the Clemson offense over the past two years, the one thing that has remained consistent throughout has been Shipley and his ability to produce. Even with stratospheric expectations coming out of Weddington High School, as he came to Death Valley as a five-star prospect and the number two running back in his class behind Ohio State’s TreVeyon Henderson, the hype proved to be warranted. In his debut season, the 5’11” 205-pounder posted three games of 100-plus rushing yards, the most by a first-year Tiger since C.J. Spiller in 2007, and scored 11 touchdowns on the ground, the second-most by a true freshman running back behind Travis Etienne.
Shipley is only eight yards away from hitting the 1,100-yard mark, which has only been done by 14 other Tiger backs. Considering Clemson has rushed for multiple touchdowns in four consecutive games, and the Tar Heels have given up at least three rushing touchdowns in four of their last six games, Shipley will end the season with at least 15 touchdowns barring any unforeseen setback. Shipley’s real value lies in his versatility, as the Paul Hornung Award front-runner poses threats to opponents every time he touches the ball, whether on the ground, through the air, or in the return game. He was recognized by the ACC as a first-team player. I didn’t even think that was possible, and it’s never been done in ACC history. We are witnessing an immensely unique running back prospect in the prime of his college career; I hope people will appreciate him before he’s playing on Sundays.
Shipley enters the conference championship on a high note, finding the endzone at least once in the last five games and totaling 150 all-purpose yards in last week’s loss to the Gamecocks. Want to hear something mind-numbing? Shipley had over 120 yards on the ground and averaged almost nine yards per carry entering the fourth quarter. He saw two carries in the final 15 minutes. Make it make sense to me.