Spread: Clemson -39
How to Watch / Listen: Noon kickoff on ABC
Last Time: In front of a national audience, and with College Gameday in town, Clemson blacked Louisville out with a dominant 47-21 win. The Tigers compiled 613 total yards (297 rushing, 316 rushing), and they dominated the game in just about every way you could imagine. Kelly Bryant had 316 passing yards for the Tigers, and three total touchdowns. Clemson gashed Louisville for 297 rushing yards on 6.2 yards per carry.
Clemson leads the all-time series 4-0.The State of the Clemson Tigers
A lot has changed in the past year, since that fateful September night. Clemson remains one of college football’s premier programs, winning the last three ACC football championships and appearing in the College Football Playoff each time. Louisville, however, has went from a possible contender in the ACC, to now the only winless team in conference play this season.
The Tigers remain one of college football’s undefeated teams at 8-0. Their most notable wins include a dominant win at Florida State last weekend (59-10), as well as notable wins at Texas A&M, at Georgia Tech, and at home vs. NC State.
Key Players: Clemson Defensive Line, QB Trevor Lawrence, RB Travis Etienne
Full disclosure, Clemson was my preseason number one team heading into this season, mainly off the back of their impressive defensive line. Dubbed the “Power Rangers,” they boast an immensely talented foursome that will all be playing on Sundays. The star of the group, in my opinion, is defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence, who is among the top prospects in a 2019 NFL draft class loaded with elite defensive line talent. Lawrence has a rare combination of speed, size (6’4″, 350+ pounds), and a rare ability to dominate inside with a combination of pass rush techniques. Lawrence is a top-ten prospect with an ability to line up at multiple spots in any scheme.
It also helps that in addition to him, the Tigers have three more potential first-rounders this year in Christian Wilkins, Austin Bryant, and Clelin Ferrell. Wilkins has been the guy that’s typically done the most damage against Louisville, most notably in their epic 2016 clash. Ferrell leads the team in sacks (7.0) and tackles for loss (12.0).
Reserve defensive lineman Xavier Thomas has also been improving every week as a pass rusher, and he too can be a first rounder if he continues his development. Thomas had a really impressive outing against Florida State last week, and as crazy as it sounds, he may start to work his way into more reps for the team. If you’re looking for one main reason why Clemson’s defense has consistently been among the best in the FBS, look no further than this impressive group.
For Clemson to take the next step though, they needed better play from the quarterback position. It sounds crazy considering Clemson is already ridiculously good (and Kelly Bryant himself wasn’t necessarily bad), but freshman Trevor Lawrence has had an immediate impact on the Tigers offense since taking over. He did not start in Clemson’s first four games, but looked really solid in relief duty. Lawrence then took over starting duties after a stellar performance against Georgia Tech (13-of-18, 176 yards, four touchdowns).
Evaluating Lawrence in his three games played, it’s easy to see why he was the highest graded quarterback in 247Sports history. He can push the ball downfield better, has an exceptionally quick release, and has great zip on his throw. He isn’t the runner that Kelly Bryant was, but he can scramble for first downs as well. I’m usually not one to make snap judgments on true freshman prospects, but Lawrence definitely looks like an elite prospect to watch for in the 2021 draft class.
To help a young quarterback, though, you need reliable playmakers outside to come through for them and build confidence. As historically good as Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa has been, he’s been blessed with immense talent outside as well as at running back. The same can be said for Clemson. They’ve had an immense pedigree at wide receivers in recent years (Sammy Watkins and Deandre Hopkins come to mind), and they have a talented trio in Tee Higgins, Amari Rodgers, and Hunter Renfrow.
They also have a stable of talented running backs, led by Travis Etienne. Etienne leads the conference in rushing yards (845 yards), touchdowns (14), and yards per carry (7.8). He was projected for a while as Clemson’s Heisman candidate, but with 84 yards combined in his last two games, that discussion has quieted down in recent weeks. Adam Choice and Tavian Feaster are also really solid, and can hit a big play for the Tigers when called upon.
Louisville Front Seven v. Clemson Running Game
Clemson is a historic favorite at -39 for multiple reasons. They are a team that is among the best in the country in multiple aspects, and clicking at the right time whereas Louisville is the exact opposite.
One of the most lopsided statistical comparisons is analyzing their rushing totals. Clemson ranks 14th nationally in rushing yards, averaging 237 yards per game on 6.2 yards per carry (fourth nationally). Louisville ranks 125th in rushing defense, allowing 250.6 yards per game on 5.3 yards per carry.
Given that, it’s reasonable to assume the Tigers can run the ball heavily, and maybe run it at will. They had a lot of success last year at Louisville with their stable of backs, and Louisville has been stumped this year by teams with run-heavy schemes (Georgia Tech, Boston College and Wake Forest especially). Travis Etienne has only had 84 yards rushing in his last two weeks, but could be due for a great performance to get him back in the mix for ACC Player of the Year.
Louisville Offensive Line v. Clemson Defensive Line
Another mismatch that Clemson is likely going to exploit is Louisville’s offensive line. Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables has had tremendous success getting pressure against Louisville in recent years, riding off the back of a talented defensive line that just overwhelms their opposition.
Clemson is currently seventh nationally in sacks (26), and has 80 tackles for loss this season (second nationally). Louisville, however, is 119th in sacks allowed (26) and 104th in tackles for loss allowed (59). They have dominated Louisville with their talented interior linemen (Wilkins and Lawrence), and that may continue tomorrow. If Clemson jumps to a big lead early, that will be more evident as Louisville will likely abandon the run and force Jawon Pass into throwing the ball nearly every down.
One matchup that could be of interest, though, is Mekhi Becton versus Clemson’s edge rushers. Becton will likely face all three of Clemson’s best pass rushers in Austin Bryant, Clelin Ferrell, and Xavier Thomas. Becton has been projected as a top pick in the 2020 NFL Draft class, so this would be an opportunity for him to validate his stock to scouts.
Clemson Wide Receivers v. Louisville Secondary
Switching gears back to offense, Clemson has more than just the running game at their disposal. Because Trevor Lawrence has already shown that he can lead the offense when the running game isn’t working, the Tigers could also choose to take their shots down the field and challenge Louisville’s secondary.
The matchup in particular to focus on is Clemson’s outside receivers (Amari Rodgers and Tee Higgins) against Louisville’s outside corners. With Louisville’s inability to pressure the quarterback or force turnovers, Lawrence could have a lot of time in the pocket to make a big throw to his receivers, and that could lead to short scoring drives and putting the game away early.