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Clemson Tigers vs. Louisville Cardinals Preview and Prediction

Lamar Jackson, Louisville Cardinals Football

Lamar Jackson, Louisville Cardinals Football

The top matchup in college football’s Week 3 slate takes place in the ACC, as defending Heisman winner Lamar Jackson leads Louisville against the defending national champions in Clemson. With the season-ending injury to Florida State quarterback Deondre Francois, this game could decide the winner of the ACC’s Atlantic Division and play a key role in shaping the CFB Playoff picture. But that’s a ways down the road, as the focus on Saturday night is simply an opportunity for Louisville to stake its claim as the team to beat, and Clemson can solidify its place at the top of the division with a victory.

Clemson QB Kelly Bryant

Since joining the ACC in 2014, Louisville has compiled a 28-13 record and tied for the division title at 7-1 in league play last season. The Cardinals checked off an important box last fall, destroying Florida State in a 63-20 victory on Sept. 17. While the program has experienced plenty of success, two things remain on the checklist: Beat Clemson and win the ACC title. Louisville can take a big step towards an ACC Championship appearance by knocking off the Tigers on Saturday night and moving to 3-0 to start 2017. If the Cardinals win, this team should be 5-0 headed into a Thursday night trip at NC State on Oct. 5. Coach Bobby Petrino’s team escaped Indianapolis with a 35-28 victory over Purdue in Week 1 and knocked off North Carolina 47-35 last Saturday.

Clemson is aiming for its third consecutive ACC title and appearance in the CFB Playoff. And if that wasn’t enough, the Tigers are also aiming to repeat as national champions after defeating Alabama in the national title game last year. Coach Dabo Swinney’s team is also off to a 2-0 start, defeating Kent State in Week 1 and hammering Auburn at the line of scrimmage for a 14-6 victory last Saturday. Despite losing quarterback Deshaun Watson and a handful of key players, this program isn’t expected to miss a beat. Clemson has recruited as well as any program in the nation, and Swinney has an excellent staff to help ease the transition in personnel.

Clemson and Louisville have played only three times in previous matchups. The Tigers have won all three games. However, all three matchups were decided by six points or less, including last year’s 42-36 thriller in Death Valley.

Clemson at Louisville

Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 16 at 8 p.m. ET

TV Channel: ABC

Spread: Clemson -3

Three Things to Watch

1. Lamar Jackson and the Louisville OL Versus Clemson’s Defensive Front

This is the must-see matchup on Saturday night. The defending Heisman winner (Lamar Jackson) against one of the nation’s best defenses. In last year’s game, both teams landed their share of punches. Jackson accounted for 457 total yards and three scores but was also intercepted once and sacked five times.

Through two games this season, Jackson is setting a similar pace to the one that landed him the most prestigious award in college football last fall. Jackson is averaging 505 total yards per game and is completing 64.7 percent of his throws – up from 56.2 in 2016. He’s also just the second player in FBS history to pass for 300 yards and rush for 100 in consecutive games. Jackson has always been a dynamic playmaker on the ground, but he’s also made significant strides as a passer over the last two seasons.

When Jackson has time to throw or small running lanes to break through and into the open field, he’s the nation’s most dynamic playmaker with the ball in his hands. However, finding time to throw and finding lanes up front could be a challenge on Saturday night. Louisville’s offensive line gave up 47 sacks in 2016 and was a big reason why this team finished last year with a three-game losing streak. Coach Bobby Petrino set out to improve this group, starting with the addition of veteran assistant Mike Summers, along with the addition of two freshmen – Robbie Bell and Mekhi Becton – up front. Additionally, Lukayus McNeil kicked inside to guard from tackle. Saturday night’s matchup against Clemson is a good barometer test for this unit, but the early returns are this group has taken a step forward.

In last week’s win over Auburn, Clemson’s defensive front wreaked havoc all night. The Tigers recorded 11 sacks and 14 tackles for a loss and allowed just 38 rushing yards on 42 attempts. The front four has been an annual strength for coordinator Brent Venables, and this unit is the best among defensive lines in college football for 2017. Ends Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant are athletic and fast options coming off the edge, and Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins help to plug the gaps up front and prevent rushing attacks from finding much room to operate. The linebacker corps is also a strength, anchored by junior Kendall Joseph. While the secondary was largely untested against Kent State and was helped by the relentless pass rush versus Auburn, this unit has yet to allow a pass play of longer than 30 yards. Additionally, safety Van Smith is slated to return after missing last week due to injury. Cornerback Marcus Edmond is listed as doubtful due to an ankle injury.

Which side wins out on Saturday night? Will Jackson’s mobility and improving offensive line hold off the Clemson pass rush? Or will Venables’ defensive line win the battle at the point, contain Jackson and prevent the Louisville offense from getting on track?

Related: Predictions for Every College Football Game in Week 3

2. Clemson QB Kelly Bryant Versus Louisville’s Defense

Replacing Deshaun Watson was no easy task for coach Dabo Swinney and co-coordinators Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott. However, Clemson opened the spring with three touted recruits battling for the job, as Kelly Bryant, redshirt freshman Zerrick Cooper and true freshman Hunter Johnson pushed for the top spot. Bryant was the favorite entering spring and extended his lead over the other two quarterbacks in fall practice. The junior played sparingly as Watson’s backup from 2015-16, completing 13 of 18 passes for 75 yards and one touchdown. Bryant also rushed for 178 yards during that span.

While Watson left big shoes to fill, Bryant has proven he is more than capable of directing the offense. In the opener against Kent State, Bryant threw for 236 yards and a touchdown on 16 completions and connected on 19 of 29 passes for 181 yards in a 14-6 victory over Auburn last Saturday. The junior also has 136 yards and three rushing touchdowns on 26 attempts so far this year.

So far, there’s very little to critique when it comes to Bryant’s performance. He’s been careful with the ball (one pick on 51 attempts) and efficient (68.6 completion percentage). And he’s also connected on two passing plays of 40 yards or more this season. Additionally, Bryant’s ability to make plays with his legs helped to keep plays alive versus Auburn and is a valuable asset against an athletic and fast Louisville defense.

While Bryant has been solid, it hasn’t been a one-man effort. The offensive line is the best in the ACC and has surrendered four sacks through two games. The receiving corps is loaded with talent, speed and athleticism. Hunter Renfrow (11 catches) has been the primary target, but Ray-Ray McCloud (nine), Deon Cain (24.3 ypc) and tight end Milan Richard will be involved.

New coordinator Peter Sirmon probably isn’t getting a ton of sleep this week as he looks to find answers to stopping Clemson’s offense. This unit recorded 8.2 yards per play in last year’s matchup versus the Cardinals and scored 42 points. Adding to Sirmon’s concerns is an injury to top cornerback Jaire Alexander. Louisville is giving up 5.4 yards per play and 31.5 points per game through two weeks. However, this unit has forced four turnovers, registered six sacks and leads the ACC in rush defense. Even with Alexander’s status up in the air, Louisville’s defense can create problems for Clemson’s offense. Ends Trevon Young and James Hearns are converted linebackers with speed off the edge to get to the quarterback. Additionally, the Cardinals have three seniors projected as starters in the secondary, so there’s plenty of experience going against this offense and how to defend the up-tempo Clemson attack.

3. The Supporting Cast

Although much of the focus and outcome in this game is going to hinge on Lamar Jackson, Clemson’s defense and Kelly Bryant, keep an eye on the supporting cast for both teams.

Can Clemson establish more of a ground attack after managing just 99 yards on 36 attempts against Auburn? Of the 99 generated yards, 59 came from Bryant. Who will step up at running back for the Tigers? Adam Choice, Tavien Feaster, Travis Etienne and C.J. Fuller have each carried the ball at least eight times this season. All four could see snaps on Saturday night, but Clemson needs to establish the ground game to avoid third-and-long situations all night. And on the outside, how will Louisville counter the speed of Deon Cain or the safety valve option of Milan Richard at tight end? Considering the firepower here, the Cardinals will probably give up yards in exchange for stops in the red zone.

When Louisville has the ball, Lamar Jackson simply has to have help. In last year’s game, Jackson accounted for 457 of the 568 total yards on offense. That’s not necessarily a losing formula on Saturday night, but a strong performance from the ground attack would alleviate some of the pressure on Jackson and prevent Clemson’s defense from keying too much on the junior. Malik Williams rushed for 149 yards on 13 carries in last week’s win over North Carolina and is joined by converted quarterback Reggie Bonnafon as key players on the ground. Can Williams find running lanes to prevent Clemson from loading up too much on stopping Jackson on read plays? And at receiver, can Jaylen Smith, Dez Fitzpatrick and Seth Dawkins get separation to generate big plays downfield if the protection holds up?

As important as Jackson and the Clemson defense are to the outcome, role players like Choice, Malik Williams or Deon Cain are also going to play an important role in the outcome on Saturday night.

Final Analysis

The chess match between Jackson and Clemson’s front seven might be one of the nation’s most intriguing battles in the 2017 season. It’s no secret the Tigers are loaded with talent and athleticism up front, and Louisville’s offensive line has had its share of issues and inconsistent play. But if the protection holds up, Jackson’s ability to make or extend plays should create opportunities downfield. Expect both sides to win their share of battles. Jackson will connect on a few big passing plays, avoid the rush for a handful of significant gains on the ground, and Clemson’s defense will also generate its share of sacks and tackles for a loss. In the battle of Louisville’s defense against the Tigers’ offense, an edge goes to Clemson. Bryant has played well through two starts, and the skill talent will produce enough plays for Dabo Swinney’s team to win another big game.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Clemson

Prediction: Clemson 34, Louisville 27