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Clemson Tigers vs. Louisville Cardinals Preview and Prediction

Lamar Jackson

Lamar Jackson

For the second time this season, the spotlight on a Saturday full of college football action is directed to the ACC, as Louisville and Clemson meet in Death Valley in a clash of top 10 teams. Even though this matchup takes place on the first weekend of October, it’s no secret this game will have major implications on the playoff picture and the ACC title race.

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The Cardinals have thoroughly dominated their first four opponents behind dynamic quarterback Lamar Jackson. But Louisville is more than just Jackson and a standout offense. The defense is among the best in the nation, and the offensive line is improving after an uneven 2015 campaign. A win by Louisville over Clemson would essentially give coach Bobby Petrino’s team a two-game lead in the Atlantic Division and cross off the biggest hurdles in conference play. While that margin isn’t necessarily insurmountable, the ACC schedule gets a lot easier for the Cardinals the rest of the way.

Clemson is also off to a 4-0 start, but the Tigers haven’t quite played up to their potential after reaching the national championship game last year. After a road win at Auburn in the opener, Troy was a tougher matchup than most anticipated (40-34). The Tigers easily handled South Carolina State 59-0 in Week 3 and scored a 26-7 road win at Georgia Tech last Thursday. The defense returned only four starters for 2016, yet is limiting opponents to just 11 points a game. Surprisingly, the offense has been coach Dabo Swinney’s biggest concern. Even with the return of quarterback Deshaun Watson and one of the nation’s best receiving corps, the Tigers are averaging 5.6 yards per play and need to jumpstart their ground attack (11th in the ACC).

Clemson and Louisville have only two previous matchups, with the Tigers claiming victories in both games. In the only contest between these two programs in Death Valley, Clemson defeated Louisville 23-17 in 2014.

Louisville at Clemson

Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 1 at 8 p.m. ET

TV Channel: ABC

Spread: Louisville -2

Three Things to Watch

1. Lamar Jackson

Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson has simply been unstoppable through the first four weeks of 2016. Jackson started eight games as a true freshman for the Cardinals in 2015 and benefited from a full offseason to work with coach Bobby Petrino as the team’s starter. The sophomore is developing as a passer and has made significant progress in this area. After completing 54.7 percent of his throws and tossing eight picks on 247 attempts in 2015, Jackson has only three interceptions on 126 attempts and has increased his completion percentage to 58.7. Whether it’s connecting on a deep pass to receivers James Quick, Jaylen Smith or Jamari Staples or attacking the middle of the field with tight end Cole Hikutini, Jackson looks much more comfortable as a passer. In addition to his growth as a passer, the sophomore has maintained his ability to hurt defenses on the ground. Jackson leads the team with 526 rushing yards and has scored 12 times on 61 carries. He’s averaging 8.6 yards per carry and over 100 yards per game on the ground.

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For some additional perspective on Jackson’s start to the 2016 season, if you remove Louisville from the equation, only four teams have scored 25 or more touchdowns all season. Jackson has already reached the end zone 25 times in four games, and while maintaining that pace is unrealistic, he’s going to have a monster statistical season and shatter the Louisville record book in a number of areas.

So how do you defend Jackson? Here’s the quandary Clemson coordinator Brent Venables finds himself in. Not only is Jackson one of the nation’s best all-around athletes and a dynamic runner, he’s also developing as a passer and continues to get better in this area with each snap. No team – Charlotte, Syracuse, Florida State or Marshall – had an answer for Jackson. Does Venables have a gameplan that can limit Jackson? …

Related: Predictions for Every College Football Game in Week 5

2. Getting Defensive

As we mentioned above, Clemson’s defense is going to have its hands full trying to stop Lamar Jackson and the explosive Louisville attack. While Jackson is the focal point, he’s not the only weapon. Running back Brandon Radcliff averages 9.3 yards per rush, the Cardinals have a wealth of talented playmakers and the offensive line has improved. But this unit will be tested on Saturday night against Clemson’s defense. The Tigers are the best defense Louisville will face so far in 2016. The front seven is anchored by linemen Christian Wilkins, Carlos Watkins and Dexter Lawrence, while senior Ben Boulware leads the way at linebacker. This unit is aggressive at the line of scrimmage and wreaks havoc from the snap, recording 38 tackles for a loss in four games. Even though Jackson has improved as a passer, the Tigers would probably prefer to take their chances with Louisville through the air, rather than letting the sophomore use his legs for big plays all night. If that’s the case, the front four needs to win the battle up front and keep Jackson within the pocket. When Jackson throws, his passes will be contested against a tough secondary. Clemson cornerback Cordrea Tankersley is one of the nation’s best and is a big reason why this unit has allowed only two touchdown passes in 2016.

It’s no secret quarterback Lamar Jackson has grabbed most of the attention in Louisville this year, but the defense is also a big reason why this team is a national title contender. The Cardinals are giving up just 22.5 points a game and 3.8 yards per play, while ranking third among ACC teams with 15 sacks. Outside linebackers Devonte Fields, Jonathan Greenard and James Hearns are responsible for most of the pass rush and figure to test a Clemson offensive line off to a slow start this season. In addition to the talent up front, Louisville’s secondary features the necessary pieces to keep up with the playmakers on the Clemson sideline. Safety Josh Harvey-Clemons leads the team with 28 tackles, and cornerbacks Jaire Alexander and Trumaine Washington anchor a secondary that has allowed only one pass play of 40 yards or more.

The quarterback duel between Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson is going to generate most of the pregame hype. However, both teams bring standout defenses into this matchup. Which one will find the right answer to slowing down a dynamic offense on the other sideline?

3. Clemson’s Offense

Clemson’s offense is averaging 33.5 points a game and 5.6 yards per play so far this year. Those numbers aren’t bad. However, that’s also a little off pace from 2015 (6.4 ypp and 38.5 ppg). Additionally, the Tigers aren’t connecting on big plays, as this unit has only one snap that went 40 yards or more. That’s surprising for a team with Deshaun Watson at quarterback and arguably the best collection of receivers in the nation. Is this the week Clemson’s attack starts to fire on all cylinders? If this is the week the Tigers put it all together and deliver their best performance of the year on offense, keep an eye on the line and Watson’s usage on running plays. The junior quarterback is averaging 8.8 yards per carry, but he’s yet to eclipse 12 rushes in a single contest – yet. Is this the week Watson plays a bigger role in the ground game? The offensive line has allowed only three sacks, but the Tigers are averaging only 4.2 yards per carry. The front five has to do a better job of clearing lanes on the ground for Watson and running back Wayne Gallman.

An x-factor to consider: Louisville’s defense has held Clemson in check in each of the last two matchups. The Tigers scored 23 points against the Cardinals in 2014 and escaped Louisville with a 20-17 victory last fall. Louisville’s defense matches up well against Clemson’s offense. Will that trend continue?

Final Analysis

This is the best game of Week 5 and should have major implications on the ACC title picture and early playoff outlook. Louisville has been one of the most impressive teams through the first four weeks of the season. The dynamic ability of quarterback Lamar Jackson is tough to prepare for in one week, and the Cardinals are more than just a talented signal-caller. With an active front seven and talented secondary on the back end, Louisville’s defense is going to give Clemson its share of trouble. Everything about this matchup suggests the Cardinals should win and move to 5-0. However, the Tigers are at home and seem to be putting the pieces together after an impressive win at Georgia Tech last Saturday. This one is tough to call. The home environment of Death Valley swings this one to Clemson.

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Prediction: Clemson 31, Louisville 30