CLEMSON - During a press conference earlier this week, North Carolina coach John Bunting was asked how he plans to defend Clemson quarterback Woody Dantzler, he of the 935 total yards and 10 touchdowns accounted for in his last two games.
"Thirteen players and a crystal ball," Bunting said. "That's the only way I know how to defend him."
The line was good for a laugh, but brings into even better focus the attention Dantzler has grabbed - willingly or not - over his last two outings.
Whether it's being voted national Player of the Week by one service or another, or jumping to the top of several Heisman Trophy polls, the always dangerous Dantzler suddenly has become top priority for defensive coordinators inside the Atlantic Coast Conference. Now, with the ACC title chase so wide open, each game takes on even more meaning than before.
And with four consecutive wins under its belt to salvage the season, the Tar Heels know they must find a way to slow Dantzler and the suddenly-dominant Clemson (4-1, 2-1 ACC) offense to keep their title hopes alive - an offense that today welcomes wide receivers Roscoe Crosby and Jackie Robinson back into the fold.
That may be easier said than done, seeing that lost in UNC's (4-3, 3-1) winning streak is a knack for giving up significant chunks of yardage.
"This offense that Dantzler is running is unbelievable," Bunting said. "It's a good operation and he's a great operator. We have a lot of work to do, and we're very hopeful that we can get our defense back on track. What's frightening to me is the first four games we had five drives of over 40 (yards), and in the last three games we've had 10 drives of over 40 allowed on defense."
Clemson has its own concerns, of course. Chief among them is dealing with Tar Heel defensive end Julius Peppers.
Peppers, whom some think could be the No. 1 overall pick in April's NFL draft, poses a threat Clemson hasn't seen since facing Missouri's Justin Smith in the second week of the 2000 season - a dominant pass rusher with the ability to change the game by himself. In seven games the senior has amassed 39 tackles - 17 for loss - and 8 1/2 quarterback sacks.
For good measure, he's also intercepted two passes.
All of which puts starting left tackle Akil Smith under the microscope.
"It gives you more flexibility on offense if Akil Smith can have some success," said Clemson head coach Tommy Bowden. "He doesn't have to win all the battles, just the majority of them. It helps if you don't have to leave a back in or leave a tight end in, or run away from him. But not a whole lot of teams have had success blocking him one-on-one. There's no doubt that's a key matchup.
"I've been around some great defensive linemen in my career at Alabama and Auburn and (Peppers) is right up there with them."
But while the Clemson offense/UNC defense has grabbed most of the pregame headlines, the tale of the game could come down to the opposite - how well Clemson's defense can contain the UNC offense.
The Tigers' defense is as healthy as it has been in some time, relatively speaking. Defensive tackles Nick Eason and Jovon Bush have overcome an ankle sprain and groin pull, respectively, to move back into the starting lineup today. But expect youngsters Eric Coleman, DeJuan Polk and Donnell Washington to see plenty of snaps there, as well.
Cornerback Kevin Johnson is back after missing last week with a broken rib, and will be tested immediately with the absence of Brian Mance. Mance missed the entire week of practice to be with his family following the death of his older brother Kenny, 24, in a car accident a week ago today. Johnson will start on one corner, with Toure Francis manning the other. Expect to see Ryan Hemby quite a bit, as well.
The trio will be tested by the two-quarterback system of Bunting. Senior Ronald Curry and freshman Darian Durant have settled into their split roles and have the UNC offense playing just well enough.