Clemson and Louisville enter Thursday night’s critical early-season ACC showdown with a completely different outlook through the first two weeks of the season. The Tigers are off to a fast 2-0 start thanks to convincing wins over Wofford and Appalachian State, while the Cardinals are just one of four Power 5 teams without a win so far. Louisville has a significant edge in strength of schedule over Clemson, as there’s no shame in losing to Auburn and Houston.
While the first two weeks of the season has brought significantly different fortunes for these two programs, Thursday night is a new opportunity. Clemson is considered by some to be the frontrunner in the ACC, but Louisville is by far the toughest opponent coach Dabo Swinney’s team has played in 2015. On the other sideline, even though the Cardinals are 0-2, this is the ACC opener for both teams. A win against the Tigers would eliminate some of the bad feelings from the 0-2 start and keep Louisville in the mix to win the Atlantic Division.
College Football Podcast: Week 3 Preview with Dari Nowkhah
Thursday night’s matchup is only the second meeting between these two teams. Last year’s game was the first contest between Clemson and Louisville on the gridiron.
Clemson at Louisville
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. ET (Thursday)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Clemson -6
Three Things to Watch
1. Louisville’s Quarterbacks
Two games, two different starters at quarterback for Louisville. Where will the quarterback carousel end on Thursday night? Could true freshman Lamar Jackson make his second start of the season? Will Reggie Bonnafon return to the starting role after not playing against Houston? Or is the third game Kyle Bolin’s opportunity to take the controls of Louisville’s offense? Or can Will Gardner – seven starts in 2014 – recover from a rib injury to start? Jackson is a dynamic dual-threat option, but he has three picks on 47 attempts and rushed for only 16 yards against Houston before Bolin was inserted into the lineup. In limited action against the Cougars, Bolin threw for 157 yards on 10 completions. Bolin’s experience isn’t limited to just this year, as he saw extensive action against Kentucky in 2014 and started the Belk Bowl against Georgia. Even if Bolin starts, could coach Bobby Petrino have a package of plays for Jackson?
2. Battle in the Trenches
Rebuilding the offensive line was a theme among contenders in the ACC this preseason. Florida State, Clemson, Louisville, Virginia Tech and Miami all entered the opener with question marks about the offensive line. So far, both units for Clemson and Louisville have experienced their share of ups and downs, as the Tigers have allowed five sacks, while the Cardinals have surrendered six. And oddly enough, both teams are averaging 4.2 yards per carry. The similarities between these two teams in the trenches continues with freshmen starting at left tackle. For Louisville, Geron Christian protects the blindside, while Deshaun Watson has touted recruit Mitch Hyatt anchoring the left side. There are a lot of similarities between these two groups, and both units will be tested on Thursday night. Louisville’s front seven is among the best in the ACC, and Clemson is loaded with promising young talent in a rebuilding year. Can the Tigers protect Watson to give him time to throw to an explosive receiving corps? Will Louisville’s line clear the way for running back Brandon Radcliff to take some of the pressure off of the starter at quarterback? The play in the trenches should have a huge impact on which team emerges with the victory.
3. Clemson’s Rebuilt Defense
So far, so good for coordinator Brent Venables. Clemson’s defense returned only two starters from a defense that ranked first nationally by limiting opponents to just 4.03 yards per play in 2014. Through two games, the Tigers are holding opposing offenses to just 3.8 yards per play, have allowed only 20 points, forced four turnovers and generated 20 tackles for a loss. The pass rush – only two sacks so far – is a concern, but there’s plenty of room to improve this area as the year progresses with a handful of freshmen cracking the two-deep for this game. While Appalachian State’s offense is one of the best in the Sun Belt, Louisville should be a better gauge of where Clemson’s defense stands in 2015. Even with James Quick and Jamari Staples sidelined due to injury, the Cardinals have talented playmakers on the outside in Jaylen Smith, Ja’Quay Savage, Traveon Samuel and tight end Micky Crum. Additionally, running back Brandon Radcliff is averaging 4.4 yards per carry in 2015 after rushing for 737 yards in 2014. A road test against a Louisville offense coming off 24 points against Auburn and 31 against Houston should provide Venables with more insight on just how quickly this defense is rebuilding after losing several key players from the dominant 2014 group.
It’s only Week 3, but this is a critical showdown in the ACC Atlantic. Additionally, this game will provide better insight into Clemson’s rebuilding effort, as well as Louisville’s quarterback situation. The home crowd and front seven on defense should help the Cardinals in their upset bid. However, Louisville won’t win this game if it continues to lose turnovers (six so far this year) and struggles to block Clemson’s defensive line. While the Tigers are also dealing with their share of new faces in the lineup, the difference in this game has to be sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson. This one won’t be decided until the fourth quarter, but Watson delivers with the game on the line to give Clemson a close victory.