In the first top 5 matchup of the college football season and just the second one in the history of Clemson Memorial Stadium, third-ranked Clemson hosts No. 4 Louisville at 8 p.m. today. The game will be televised on ABC.
The winner of this game will gain control of the ACC Atlantic Division race and will have the inside track to the ACC Championship Game.
Here are the key matchups to look for in this pivotal game.
Clemson’s defensive front vs. Louisville’s offensive line: This is one of the biggest matchups of the game, especially in the interior. Though the Cardinals have allowed just three sacks, they did show some vulnerability against Marshall last week as they allowed two sacks and several more quarterback pressures on Lamar Jackson. The Tigers thrive off pressure, and if they can get it just from their front four then it means defensive coordinator Brent Venables can keep seven guys back to try and tackle Jackson when he breaks containment. No one has been able to block Christian Wilkins, Carlos Watkins, Dexter Lawrence or Clelin Ferrell to this point. The Tigers have 13 sacks and 38 tackles for loss. Also, the Cardinals are rushing for 318.3 yards a game, while the Tigers are giving up just 92.8. Something has to give, and whichever one does could be the deciding factor in this game. Advantage: Clemson
Clemson’s linebackers vs. Lamar Jackson: If the Tigers can get pressure up front, and I suspect they will, then Ben Boulware and is counterparts have to make sure they stay with their keys and stay disciplined. If you go back and watch the Florida State game, the Seminoles’ linebackers were very undisciplined, which allowed Jackson to run downhill untouched most of the game. If Jackson, who is averaging 466.5 yards per game in total offense, is given that much space in the open field, he is very hard to tackle. It also opens up the rest of the offense, especially the Cardinals play-action game. If this happens and Jackson is dictating the tempo of the game, it is going to be a long night for the Clemson defense. Advantage: Louisville
Clemson’s offensive line vs. Louisville’s front seven: Though Clemson’s defense has received a lot more attention. People forget the Cardinals’ defense ranks 13th nationally in yards allowed at just 278.3 per game. It all starts and ends with their very talented front seven, led by linebacker Keith Kelsey and outside backer Devonte Fields. Louisville had 15 sacks this year and 34 tackles for loss. Clemson’s offensive line has not played well this year. They have struggled to stay with their blocks and there have been times when guys are losing their one-on-one matchups. That has limited running back Wayne Gallman’s effectiveness and almost taken Deshaun Watson’s quarterback-run game out of the offense. Advantage: Louisville
Deshaun Watson vs. Louisville’s defense: The last two years, the Cardinals have got the best of the Tigers’ quarterback. Two years ago, he threw an interception before being knocked out of the game with a broken finger after the third offensive possession. Last year, Watson was limited to 199 passing yards and was picked off two times. No one has defended Watson better than Louisville defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. Expect Grantham to have a plan of attack again this year to limit Watson’s effectiveness in the passing game. However, though he did not play his best last year, Watson still made some big plays in the passing game, including long touchdown passes to Jordan Leggett and Hunter Renfrow. Great players always find ways to make plays when they need to the most. Watson has done it his whole career and I think he will figure out a way to do it again tonight. Advantage: Clemson
Turnover margin: In games like tonight’s turnovers and special teams always play a key role in the outcome. The Tigers have a slight edge in special teams as both teams return punts well, cover well and are average at returning kickoffs. Clemson kicker Greg Huegel is 7 of 9 in field goal attempts this year, while Louisville’s two kickers are a combined 3-for-6. Turnover margin is where the Tigers appear to have a big edge. Clemson is plus-4 in terms of taking care of the football, while Louisville is minus-3. The Cardinals have lost the turnover battle in three of their four games, and in the three they lost, they turned the ball over three times. Though losing the turnover battle has not hurt the Cardinals just yet, it could come back to bite them against an opportunistic defense and team like Clemson. Louisville fumbled the ball six times and lost two at Syracuse. Clemson on the other hand has not lost the turnover margin in any game and has forced at least one turnover in each game. Advantage: Clemson
Bottom line: Clemson has not seen an offense like Louisville’s and they definitely have not seen a quarterback like Lamar Jackson. However, Jackson has not seen a defense like Clemson’s either. You figure those two will cancel each other out. That means this game will come down to what Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson does against the Louisville defense. Like I said before, big-time players step up in big-time games. Watson has done that throughout his entire career at Clemson which is why he and the Tigers are 21-1 in games he starts and finishes. The only loss? The National Championship Game in which he set a record 478 total yards against Alabama’s top-rated defense.
Prediction: Clemson 23, Louisville 20