Believe it: Clemson-North Carolina gives ACC the championship spotlight


Go ahead, ACC. Start up the hype train for championship week.

You deserve it.

All those years stuck trying to glam up Florida State-Duke or Wake Forest-Georgia Tech have led to this moment.

Two years in a row now, the ACC has the best, most compelling, must-see matchup among the four Power 5 championship games set for Saturday. Call it a trend, not a fluke.

A quick gander at the other three games confirms the spotlight should belong to the league more commonly derided for championship misses than hits (among many other potshots).

Alabama-Florida in the SEC championship game? Maybe if we turned back the clock to 2009. The only good reason to watch is to see whether Florida can replicate is efforts against Florida State and score only a safety -- not so easy to do, by the way.

Michigan State-Iow … Oh, sorry. I dozed off on my keyboard there. This game might be exciting if Iowa lined up for 57-yard field goals on every down, and Michigan State trotted out Jalen Watts-Jackson to try to scoop and score.

USC-Stanford. Why does this sound so familiar? Oh, right. They already played this year. And USC has … four losses? Remind me how this qualifies as a good game.

Now over to Charlotte, where the ACC has a potential top 10 matchup featuring two of the hottest teams in the country and a sold-out game for the first time since 2011. This comes on the heels of 2014, when the ACC also had the top title-game matchup, between No. 4 Florida State and No. 11 Georgia Tech.

But this one has much more sizzle for a few reasons.

Both Clemson and North Carolina are on double-digit winning streaks. The Tigers have tied a school record with 15 straight wins, dating to last season. The Tar Heels have won a school-record 11 in a row.

This is the first time the ACC championship game has featured two teams with perfect league records. This also is the most combined wins by championship-game participants (23).

Both happen to have tempo offenses with dynamic dual-threat quarterbacks leading the way, along with defensive coordinators up for the Broyles Award.

But more than all that, look at the teams. North Carolina is a national curiosity, like the human cannonball at the carnival. It has been years since the Tar Heels were taken seriously, so people outside ACC country are going to have to tune in Saturday to see for themselves: Why have the Tar Heels been suddenly inserted into the College Football Playoff conversation? A nationwide debate has begun about its ranking (too low?), its season-opening loss to South Carolina (blech) and its strength of schedule (are two FCS games really that bad?).

There are staunch North Carolina supporters who believe the Tar Heels are playing as well as Oklahoma, pass the “eye test” and would deserve to make it into the playoff with an upset win over the Tigers. Coach Larry Fedora already has started lobbying, clearly sensing he is going to have to sell, sell, sell the way Art Briles, Gary Patterson and Urban Meyer did last year. The committee, meanwhile, has proven that the loss combined with the schedule is not enough to merit serious consideration.

Then there is Clemson, a team that has been No. 1 since the first playoff ranking came out in early November but has not exactly played its best football over the last three weeks. The Tigers have a precarious hold on No. 1 after another close call to South Carolina. Ten turnovers over the last three games have not been pretty. Does it get any more compelling than tuning into to see whether the Tigers can hold on and make the playoff? Because a loss here, and, well, they are out.

That is the beauty of this game. Nobody knows what will happen when they play. Furthermore, nobody knows what the committee will do should North Carolina pull the upset. And that is not such a big stretch anymore. Three weeks ago, North Carolina had a 30 percent chance to beat Clemson. The ESPN Football Power Index now says the Tar Heels have a 41 percent chance to win Saturday. Florida and Iowa are bigger underdogs. And we already know the Michigan State-Iowa winner is in the playoff; we already know Alabama is in with a win. Stanford needs to win and chaos to happen to have a playoff shot.

So that leaves all the juicy drama squarely to the ACC championship game.

The train rolls on.