For the 15th time in ACC football history and only the second time in the last two weeks, two top-10 teams will meet in a regular season conference game. Louisville's meteoric rise in the college football world has brought this historical irregularity to fruition as the Cardinals flew past Florida State 63-20 two weeks ago and arrive in Death Valley as the betting favorite against the defending national runner-up.
Louisville's brief time as an ACC member represents the entire series history between these two teams. Clemson leads 2-0, but both hard-fought victories came by a combined nine points. In 2014, Deshaun Watson saw just 11 snaps on the field and both teams combined for 3 for 33 on third down in a defensive battle and 20-17 Tigers win. Louisville led 10-7 in the third quarter last year at home on a Thursday night and picked off Watson twice but failed to find an offensive rhythm with three different quarterbacks rotating in the game.
One year ago, Bobby Petrino was still rotating Louisville quarterbacks and linemen in and out, searching for something reliable and consistent on offense. After struggling to find a quarterback who could the offense to first downs, now Lamar Jackson leads the entire nation in touchdowns.
"Coach Petrino was trying to sort through that, and there's only so much you can do with a freshman to kind of get him up to speed," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said of seeing Jackson a year ago. "I think they knew they had a tremendous prospect on their hands, and we saw that, too, with the tape. But he just didn't have a full grasp of everything, and they had other guys maybe early on that maybe they felt like, okay, gives us a better chance to win from a complete package standpoint. So I think that was the biggest thing early on.
"But as I said the other day, that sorted itself out pretty quick, and as he got more and more confident through his reps and his practice and the opportunities that he did get, the game slowed down for him. By the end of the year, he was playing at a really high level."
Even though Louisville has upgraded its offense significantly from last year's meeting, there's no reason to believe Saturday night's game won't be another one possession game. The Cardinals are red hot and riding Jackson's fast start, but they are entering a building where Dabo has won 18 straight and holds a 48-6 record as head coach.
Clemson storyline: As college football fans, we are prisoners of the moment. Louisville is the team of the moment, and it's awfully hard to pace your perspective when Jackson has packed a season's worth of touchdowns into four weeks. (Jackson has already scored more touchdowns in 2016 than seven FBS teams' season total from a year ago.) Swinney preaches perspective, a 15-game vision that builds up from the ACC Atlantic Division to the ACC title game to the College Football Playoff. That message resonated with the Tigers in 2015 and helped keep them centered while the world fell in love with Dabo, Deshaun, B.Y.O.G. (Bring Your Own Guts) and all of the fun that surrounded this surging program.
Louisville is the team of the moment, but Clemson is still one of the gate-keepers of the conference. There's a real "coming for the crown" feeling to Saturday night's game. Clemson's place at the top of the ACC, Watson's place as the league's best player and most likely Heisman Trophy winner, all of it. Fans are hoping the sustained success established in the last five seasons under Swinney will show through in this meeting of the league's best quarterbacks, best defenses and, so far, most likely playoff contenders.
Louisville storyline: There are not many coaches that would choose to play its two most important games in the first five weeks of the season, but it could end up working out well for Petrino. Beating Florida State and Clemson would give the Cardinals a two-game cushion in the ACC Atlantic race, making that late-season Noles-Tigers showdown look more like a bronze medal match than the College Football Playoff play-in game we expected before the year.
Unless you believe Louisville can lose twice in its final five ACC games (Duke, NC State, Virginia, Boston College, Wake Forest), then beating Clemson should solidify the Cardinals' spot in the ACC title game. There's still tons of playoff implications with Louisville's trip to Houston in November, but in terms of the ACC Atlantic, it's possible the Cardinals' early season slate results in a lack of drama down the stretch.
Pick: Clemson +2. If this game comes down to Watson and Jackson exchanging possessions in the fourth quarter of a close game, no one loses. But if you're looking for a more complex analysis of the game, consider the game-breaker from a year ago as a huge X-factor in this matchup. Wayne Gallman (24 carries, 139 yards) was the reliable workhorse Clemson needed to hold the leverage in last year's matchup against the Cardinals, and he did the same thing in a rock fight against Auburn in the season-opener (30 carries, 123 yards). If Gallman is running hard and finding success, Jackson's touches will be limited.
Then there's Clemson's defense, which is the other reason I like the Tigers here. That young but freakishly talented defensive front will have its hands full with Jackson's play-action and read-option looks. Eye discipline will be a huge factor in this game, both up front and on the back end of the defense. Jaylen Smith and Jamani Staples love to see linebackers staring at Jackson so they can creep behind defenses for a huge play. But defensive coordinator Brent Venables has proven to be one of the most impressive coaches in the game, and I think he'll have something cooked up for the Louisville's star sophomore.
|Louisville at Clemson, 8 p.m. ET, ABC|
|Clemson +2|| || || || || || || |
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