Crank up the hype machine.
The most recent biggest game in Clemson history is six days away. Into Clemson will stroll an offense that has proven explosive even when it’s not operating at tip-top shape. The Louisville Cardinals and Lamar Jackson have played well enough through the first third of the season to set up a battle royale in the Atlantic Division.
There are two major storylines to watch in preparation for Saturday’s showdown at Memorial Stadium, at least as far as Clemson is concerned. These two questions will guide the conversation leading up to kickoff at 8:00 on Saturday night.
The first question is simple: Can the Tigers stop Jackson and the Louisville offense? The answer is also simple: No, they can’t—but that’s a little too simple.
The Cardinals have gained 350 yards more than any other college football team thus far in 2016. They’re averaging a smidge more than nine yards per play. Just two teams—Miami and Texas Tech—have come within a yard of that average so far. Only the Red Raiders are even remotely close to Bobby Petrino’s squad in terms of yards per game.
The quarterback Jackson makes the Cardinals tick. He is perhaps the favorite to win the post-September Heisman, the new shiny object in the college football landscape. His dominance comes in two facets, as the ACC’s second-leading passer—and third-most efficient—and second-leading rusher.
Jackson reminds me of a taller Woody Dantzler on steroids, a dynamic athlete that can create plays out of thin air and possesses a strong arm on the move. He will be a handful for a Clemson team that still hasn’t proven it can go mano-a-mano with another elite offense in a shootout.
Speaking of Clemson’s offense, here’s the second question worth asking this week: Is Clemson capable of winning a game like this?
Frankly, I think this question is silly for reasons that will become clear momentarily, but there still seems to be a fair amount of hand-wringing among fans about a perceived lack of killer instinct within the program. Those same concerns existed last year, and they seemed ridiculous by December.
There are plenty of reasons to think this is just a phase in the development of this particular team. For example, in what seemed an uneven performance against Georgia Tech, check out the disparity in targets from the first half to the second for the most prominently featured players in the game:
Ray-Ray McCloud—1st half: 10, 2nd half: 1
Mike Williams—1st half: 10, 2nd half: 0
Jordan Leggett—1st half: 4, 2nd half: 1
Those three players were essential in both building a sizable lead and pounding Tech into submission, and then they basically disappeared. It’s as if Clemson found what was working, continued doing that until halftime, then freely chose to do the opposite after the half.
It may sound like roses and cotton candy, but it seems like Clemson doesn’t care about proving it has a killer instinct to anyone. It may be a dangerous game to play, but it shouldn’t shock a single person who watched this team operate a season ago. The Tigers got away with it then. Doing just enough to win each week is ingrained in the DNA of the program. It’s woven into the fabric of Dabo Swinney’s coaching philosophy.
We can’t be certain, but it feels like Clemson may be holding back for moments like Saturday, when the nation will be watching to see if it can win yet another primetime showdown with the newest en vogue team in college football.
Hold onto your hats. The machine is heating up.