North Carolina hasn’t had much to smile about over the past two weeks, but Myles Dorn cracked one when he looked ahead to Saturday.
Kenan Stadium packed on a sunny afternoon for No. 1 Clemson and the chance to meet the defending champions in a game that will be televised nationally on ABC.
It doesn’t get much better than that.
“If you can’t get up for them, then you can’t get up for anybody,” Dorn said. “It’s a great benchmark for us, the No. 1 team in the nation. Who else to see where you’re at? if you can’t get up for them, then you can’t get up for anybody.”
There’s a little extra energy in the Carolina locker room this week as the Tar Heels look to take advantage of a rare opportunity.
“Even if you do go through four or five years in college football, how many times do you really get to play the No. 1 team in the country?,” linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel said. “Going at it full force this week and trying to shock the nation.”
Not often, as the 2015 ACC Championship Game meeting between Carolina and Clemson was the last time the Tar Heels faced a top-ranked team. Before that, Florida State was No. 1 in both 1999 and 1993 when it visited Kenan Stadium.
Mack Brown was around for one of those, as well as the 1997 matchup against the No. 3 Seminoles that is widely considered the biggest came in the history of Tar Heel football. Carolina was ranked No. 5 that day, but FSU was at a level above the rest of the ACC and all but a few teams nationally and dominated in a 20-3 victory.
That’s what Dabo Swinney has built.
“Clemson is in that role right now and all of us in this league have to do everything we can do to get better and catch them,” Brown said. “They’re better than anybody else in the country; it’s not just the ACC. They dominated (Texas) A&M, they dominate everybody; that’s just who they are right now.”
The Tigers are dominating off the field, too, with their investment in facilities — the $55 million Reeves Complex — and the people that keep the program running.
Defensive coordinator Brent Venables made $2.2 million last season according to USA Today’s salary database, while co-offensive coordinators Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott were both given raises to $1 million this season.
Based on USA Today’s database, Venables would have ranked tied for 57 among the 123 head coaches it had salary data for.
They built the best facilities in the country because it was important to them,” Brown said. “They’ve made it really important to be good and stay good and you have to compliment them for that.”
That’s all played a part in a four-year run that includes a 55-4 overall record, going 30-2 in ACC play with four straight league titles to go with two national titles and another runner-up finish. A total of 24 players have been drafted with numerous others signing on as free agents.
The investments in facilities and operating programs won’t come overnight. If anyone is to take a step toward closing the gap that Clemson has on the league, Brown says it starts with finding the right players.
“Recruiting, period,” he said. “They’ve got better players than everybody else and I don’t want to take away the fact that they coach them so well either. When you look at Clemson, sometimes you just see great players; you see great players that are motivated and being coached and they know what they’re doing.”
Getting great players only leads to getting and keeping more great players.
Last Saturday, the Tigers played a program-record 111 players in a blowout win over Charlotte, meaning those four-star freshmen aren’t sitting on the bench wondering if they’d be better off elsewhere.
Third on the depth chart at quarterback, freshman Taisun Phommachahn attempted nine passes while four-star freshman Chez Mellusi, who wasn’t even on the depth chart, got six carries.
“When you keep winning, you’ve got happy players, you’ve got happy mamas, you’ve got happy dads, and then you’ve got happy recruits because they come down to see them,” Brown said. “Everybody’s happy because everybody gets to play. I think that’s the biggest difference in the rest of us; the rest of us are trying to find enough healthy guys to get out there every Saturday, and these guys just roll them in and out.”
With all of that in mind, Brown believes he won’t have to give much of a pregame speech to his team on Saturday. Some of his players were recruited by the Tigers and the rest know the program from Clemson’s primetime victories and championships.
The only person that isn’t so excited to see them is Brown.
“(Swinney) was the first to text me when my name popped up with this job, he said, ‘Are you really going to do this?,’” Brown said. “I said, ‘I’m going to ask the NCAA, I’ll do it, if I can petition the NCAA to get you off our schedule. I do not want to play you.’ And he laughed, and now here we are, so obviously the NCAA didn’t cooperate.”