No. 9 Clemson isn't going to compete for a national title this season, but it returned to conference supremacy and clinched a spot in the Orange Bowl with a 39-10 shellacking of No. 23 North Carolina in the ACC Championship Game. The win marks the Tigers' seventh ACC crown of the past eight seasons and brings a bit of redemption for Dabo Swinney's program after it failed to make the league title game last season for the first time since 2014.
North Carolina jumped out to an early 7-0 lead but faded fast once Clemson turned to freshman quarterback Cade Klubnik on its third possession. With junior starter DJ Uiagalelei proving ineffective, Klubnik entered and quickly flipped the momentum in the Tigers' favor by directing a 71-yard touchdown drive. The former five-star prospect and heir-apparent to Uiagalelei completed 20 of 24 passes for 279 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions, while also running for 30 yards and a score. Klubnik remained on the field until third-string quarterback Hunter Johnson entered with the game out of hand in the fourth quarter.
Klubnik's counterpart, North Carolina's Drake Maye, guided the Tar Heels into the red zone five times, but those trips produced just 10 points. A fumble and a blocked field goal attempt hampered the Tar Heels in the first half, and a costly interception gutted their chances during the the third quarter.
With the Tar Heels trailing just 24-10, Maye threw an ill-advised third-down pass that Clemson's Nate Wiggins intercepted and returned 98 yards for a touchdown with 5:05 left in the third quarter. The play zapped UNC's hopes of a rally and ushered in the Tar Heels' third consecutive loss. At 9-4, North Carolina can still reach double-digit victories for just the second time since 1997 if it wins a bowl game.
Clemson has already reached double-digit wins for a 12th straight season under Swinney and can finish 12-2 if it wins the Orange Bowl. Tennessee is its projected opponent for the game, which is set for Dec. 30 in Miami. With such an emphatic win in the ACC Championship Game, Clemson would have been in great shape to make the College Football Playoff if only it hadn't lost to South Carolina last week. Without the loss to the Gamecocks, which marked Clemson's first home loss since 2016, the Tigers would have benefitted tremendously from this weekend's losses by No. 3 TCU and No. 4 USC.
But a league title and New Year's Six bowl appearance are nothing to scoff at, especially after the program lost long-time coordinators Tony Elliot (Virginia) and Brent Venables (Oklahoma) to head coaching gigs after the 2021 season.