Scott Fowler

Charlotte’s a winner with dream matchup of Clemson-UNC in ACC championship

When No. 1 Clemson and No. 8 North Carolina square off at 8 p.m. at Bank of America Stadium Saturday night (TV: ABC), there will be more than 70,000 people filling the sold-out stadium. I think they could sell 150,000 tickets for this one, though, given all the people who wanted tickets but didn't get them.
When No. 1 Clemson and No. 8 North Carolina square off at 8 p.m. at Bank of America Stadium Saturday night (TV: ABC), there will be more than 70,000 people filling the sold-out stadium. I think they could sell 150,000 tickets for this one, though, given all the people who wanted tickets but didn't get them. AP

It is, quite simply, the most anticipated college football game in Charlotte history.

When No. 1 Clemson and No. 8 North Carolina square off at 8 p.m. at Bank of America Stadium Saturday night, there will be more than 70,000 people filling the sold-out stadium. I think they could sell 150,000 tickets for this one, though, given all the people who wanted tickets but didn't get them.

The 2015 ACC championship is at stake. And for Clemson, at least, this also serves as a national championship quarterfinal. Win and move into the college football playoffs; lose and move on to a lesser bowl game and what might have been.

For the Tar Heels, a win still might not secure a berth in the four-team playoff. But it would give UNC its first ACC football title since 1980 and its first 12-win season .

So is this a hot night in Charlotte? You better believe it. At almost exactly the same time as the game kicks off, Billy Joel will begin a sold-out concert at Time Warner Cable Arena just a couple of blocks up the street.

Even at age 66, it's rare for the Piano Man to play second fiddle, but that will be the case Saturday. Charlotte has been a pro football town for two decades now thanks to the NFL, but on Saturday it will become a college football town.

About 70 percent of the stadium will likely be awash in orange since Clemson fans had a two-week head start on buying tickets for this one. But enough Tar Heels will muscle their way into the stadium that the game will feel somewhat like a Super Bowl does in person -- every big offensive play will be cheered, no matter who makes it.

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney pooh-poohed the idea of the Tigers having a homefield advantage Friday. "They'll have a great crowd," Sweeney said. "We'll have a great crowd. But you've got to play well for that crowd to be an advantage."

Clemson leads the overall series vs. UNC 36-19-1 and is 5-1 over the past six games, including its 50-35 win over the Tar Heels in Death Valley in 2014.

North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said there has never been a more highly anticipated game for the Tar Heels during his tenure. "I mean, how many years has it been -- 35 years?" Fedora said, referring to the last time UNC won the ACC championship. "There are people who have never seen it in their lifetime that are Carolina fans. I would say they're pretty excited about it."

With two marquee quarterbacks who lead the two best offenses in the ACC, a score will be possible on every play. I would imagine the winning team will need to put up at least 35 points. When Swinney was asked Friday if a 14-10 final score would surprise him, he chuckled.

"I'd be shocked," he said.

The Tar Heels played their worst game of the season in Charlotte in September, losing to a South Carolina team that turned out to be so awful that coach Steve Spurrier left in midseason (and that game, if you remember, had 20,000 empty seats). Now the Tar Heels are back in Charlotte, this time sporting an 11-game win streak, a lot more fans and enough success that they have changed the narrative from the sense of impending doom a lengthy NCAA investigation into the school has provided.

"I don't know if it erases the cloud," Fedora said of the 2015 team's success, "but the sun is shining through the cloud. Before it was so dark you never could see the sun, but now the sun is filtering through."

There will be no sunshine Saturday night as temperatures hover in the 30s for this national telecast. But there will be two winners -- whichever team triumphs, and the city of Charlotte. This is the sort of dream game a city salivates for when it bids for events like the ACC football championship.

Now we just need the game to live up to the hype.

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