Stop me if you’ve heard this script before.
A big game is coming. It’s a night game, which makes it bigger. College Gameday makes it even bigger. The town has been abuzz for a while. The eyes of the nation are focused on one campus—this campus. Sometimes other things take precedence—like historic flooding—but it’s all football this time.
An established power gets to defend its turf against the new kid on the block. The “establishment” Heisman candidate has a chance to reclaim his throne on the same field where the young whippersnapper. It’s last year’s shiny new toy versus this year’s brand new model.
When Clemson hosts Louisville on Saturday, it could be the game of the year in college football. Questions abound on both sides. What we thought we knew about the Tigers has been tested. What we didn’t expect from the Cardinals has knocked us off-balance.
Preseason predictions that seem uncertain at present will be either solidified or destroyed in one 60-minute period of conflict. Patience with Clemson’s oft-sputtering offense will either be rewarded or condemned as a waste of energy. Lamar Jackson will either become this year’s hottest superhero Halloween costume or a flamed-out four-hit wonder.
Either the coach with the goofy slogans or the one who likes motorcycles will find himself in the driver’s seat in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Either the newest member of the league or one of its original founders will hold the keys to the College Football Playoff in its hands.
And as with every “champion versus challenger” showdown, especially one hosted by the team atop the coveted perch, Clemson obviously finds itself favored to win the g—
Wait, what? Louisville comes in as the favorite?
Well that changes everything.
See, there’s this thing with Clemson and the underdog role. It’s a familiar part to play, but those chances don’t come around too often anymore. Fans who relish the chance to feel like anything and everything is conspiring against their side only ratchet up that rough edge when it doesn’t often apply.
That Notre Dame game last year, when everyone seemed to be picking against the Tigers and the fans came out frenzied because of the disrespect? Clemson was actually favored by two.
In fact, the Tigers were favored in every single regular season game last season. Counting this season, Dabo Swinney’s program has been favored in Vegas in a whopping 25 consecutive regular season contests. The streak in home games is 18, dating back to an unforgettably forgettable beatdown administered by Florida State in 2013.
The good news is that Clemson gets to dust off its underdog garb this week. Nothing wrong with that, right? But here’s the bad news: Clemson has lost its last four regular season games as an underdog. Not since they knocked off Georgia at home to begin that 2013 campaign have the Tigers overcome the Vegas odds.
That’s only half the story, though. Louisville has benefited greatly from being an unknown to this point, blindsiding most of the country—not yours truly—by dismantling Florida State. Lamar Jackson’s legend has been told largely on the authority of highlight reels, since much of America still hasn’t seen him play a complete game. He likely won’t have the benefit of a blowout to usher him from the stage before the final act this time.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the mild-mannered Deshaun Watson has seen this situation. He has thrived in it. To the untrained eye, it seems like he might struggle this time, but many of us know better than to assume the worst for Clemson’s offense.
Much like we saw during the presidential primaries, the established favorite has been overtaken by an upstart who has captivated the populous with his flair and keeps opponents on edge with bravado bordering on carelessness. Watson can prove to the nation he has a bit more staying power than Jeb Bush when faced with Jackson’s Donald Trump impression.
The roles for these two teams may be reversed, but in a way, that makes this game even better. Louisville is the squad quietly sensing a special something on the horizon, but instead of lurking in the shadows, it now has to face its primary competition in broad daylight.
Meanwhile, Clemson is forced to throw caution to the wind as it endeavors to defend its reputation, and it is unencumbered by the burden of being the favorite that can so often lend itself to timidity. As the Tigers cast their chips into the all-in bucket, the 80,000-plus that fill Memorial Stadium to the brim can now proudly display chips of their own—the kind that rest on the shoulders of fighters looking to prove a point.
Tear up that old script. Throw it out. This one is much better.