Everything You Need to Know: Louisville v. Clemson

Spread: Clemson -24 (over/under 60.5)

Kickoff: Noon ET Saturday, ABC

Last Time: In a season full of cavernous lows, this game was probably the absolute worst for the 2018 Louisville team. Clemson racked up 491 rushing yards, with three runners (Travis Etienne, Lyn-J Dixon, and Tavian Feaster) going for over 100 yards each. In addition, Clemson got a pick six from Isaiah Simmons, three touchdown passes from backup quarterback Chase Brice, and even the head coach’s son scoring the final touchdown. The Tigers had a real shot to put up 80+ points, but fell short on time as #2 Clemson rolled to a 77-16 win over Louisville.

Clemson leads the all-time series 5-0.

Meet the 2019 Clemson Tigers

What can be said about Clemson that hasn’t already been spoken or written about? The third-ranked Tigers, winners of two of the last three national championships, are the model of consistency throughout the board. They have consistently ranked among the top recruiting classes in the nation since 2015, and on pace to have the top recruiting class again in 2020. They consistently develop top talent at multiple positions; look at their quarterback flow from Tajh Boyd to Deshaun Watson to Trevor Lawrence, or their numerous defensive linemen in the NFL, or their receivers with DeAndre Hopkins, Sammy Watkins, and soon-to-be Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross. They consistently retain their top assistants year in and year out; over half of the 12-man Clemson coaching staff has been with the team at least five years, including defensive coordinator Brent Venables.

Simply put, if you want to build a national title contender, Clemson is a model to follow. They have built an elite culture in the program with consistent presences in the coaching staff, and continue to recruit and develop talent at the highest level. It is a huge part of why they have won 21 straight games entering Saturday’s contest, and looking to win their fifth straight ACC conference title.

Clemson enters the game at 6-0, with wins over Texas A&M, North Carolina, and Florida State on their resume.

Key Offensive Players: QB Trevor Lawrence, RB Travis Etienne, WR Tee Higgins

Trevor Lawrence is rightfully going to get his share of attention, when you talk about the Clemson offense. He checks all the boxes for an NFL team to take him #1 overall in the 2021 Draft; tremendous size (6’6″, 220 lbs.), mobility, and arm talent to hit throws at every level of the field.

But after ending his freshman season with over 3,000 yards, 30 touchdowns and four interceptions, Lawrence’s numbers have taken a slight dip so far in 2019. The sophomore is completing 62% of his passes (down slightly from 65% in ’18), and has thrown 11 touchdowns to six interceptions. I wouldn’t call it a traditional sophomore slump by any means, because those numbers are still solid. But he set the bar really high with his productivity last season, so anything less than that in 2019 and 2020 might be considered a down year.

The Tigers are averaging 238.8 rushing yards per game, which also helps an offense that is still on its way to its full potential. Travis Etienne returns as the starter once again, after leading Clemson in rushing yards and touchdowns the last two seasons. Etienne is a very fluid runner in the open field, able to make one cut and accelerate for a long touchdown run. Add his ability to take passes out of the backfield and bulking up to 210 pounds, and he can be a potential late first or early second round draft pick in 2020.

Clemson also has the deepest wide receiver group in the ACC, and maybe the only one that can match up with Alabama in the country. At the head of that group is Tee Higgins, who has all the potential to be a superstar in the NFL once he turns pro. Higgins sort of reminds me of DeVante Parker when he was at Louisville, in terms of his overall impact on the offense. He’s averaging 22 yards per catch and leading the Tigers in receiving (24 receptions, 579 yards, five touchdowns). His film tape screams “big-time wide receiver” when you watch Higgins demolish opposing cornerbacks. He has incredibly strong hands, and combined with his exceptional size (6’4″, 215 pounds), allows him to easily win one-on-one jump balls. His acceleration can also threaten defenses vertically, which is a huge challenge for a Louisville defense that just allowed over 400 passing yards to Wake Forest.

Key Defensive Players: LB Isaiah Simmons, DB K’Von Wallace

The biggest question for Clemson’s defense would be how they could replace their entire starting defensive line from last year. Three of their original starters (Clelin Ferrell, Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence) went in the first round, and Austin Bryant went in the fourth round to the Detroit Lions.

But defensive coordinator Brent Venables always finds a way to keep Clemson consistently at the top of the FBS in total defense. The Tigers are third in total defense (254.8 yards per game), and second in passing defense (150.3 yards per game, 5/8 TD/INT ratio).

The defense’s strongest group has moved from its defensive line to linebackers, where Isaiah Simmons is making a serious case for the Butkus Award. Simmons leads the team in tackles (51), tackles for loss (8.0), and sacks (4.5). Let me start by saying that Simmons might be the best athlete on Clemson’s roster. Here’s a clip of him running stride for stride with Travis Etienne:

Or how about him posting an 11’10” max jump at 6’4″, 220+ pounds:

On top of his ungodly athleticism, Simmons has great football instincts. He has the capacity to play at the line of scrimmage and shed blockers in run support, and is a very adequate pass coverage linebacker. Simmons is the epitome of a three-down linebacker, with the versatility to make a play at any given moment. If I’m an NFL team in need of a linebacker with the ability to do it all, Simmons has to be the first guy off the board at that position.

Clemson’s defense is not only athletic, but they are still great at making big opportunities for themselves. The Tigers have 22 sacks (fourth in the conference) and tied for the ACC lead with eight interceptions.

Their secondary is a senior-heavy group, led by K’Von Wallace and Tanner Muse. Wallace leads Clemson’s defensive backs with 26 tackles, and recorded a pick-six against Charlotte last month. Muse leads the team with three interceptions, and all of their secondary is rock solid in pass coverage. Through six games this year, the Tigers have only allowed Texas A&M to throw for over 200 yards.

One More Important Thing to Know:

Heading into this week, Louisville and Clemson are two of eight teams in the FBS that are currently averaging 225+ rushing and passing yards per game, offensively. Louisville, however, is also one of three teams with those totals, while also averaging 10+ yards per throw attempt.

Top Storylines:

Will Louisville’s big-play ability be enough to keep up with Clemson?

That last stat leads directly into the biggest part of the game for Louisville: can they stretch the field against this talented Clemson defense?

In three of the last four games, Louisville has averaged 12+ yards per passing attempt. In those last four games? 3-1, with their lone loss at Florida State after rallying from down 21-0 to take the lead in the fourth quarter.

Louisville’s offense has progressively gotten better in each of the first six games, but they will need to be their absolute best if they hope to spring an upset of the Tigers. Clemson will almost assuredly get their fair share of production through the air, if Louisville’s pass defense the last two games is any indicator. Unless Trevor Lawrence reverts back to his performance from the North Carolina game a few weeks ago, Louisville will need to continue to stretch the field vertically and get the passing game going early, and prepare for another potential shootout.

Can Louisville get Clemson into third-and-long situations?

Clemson’s offense is loaded with talent across the board, but if there’s one thing they have been mediocre in comparison, it’s their third down conversions. The Tigers have completed 42% of them on the year, but in three games, they have gone under 35% in that category.

This is where Louisville has to capitalize on early down situations. Their defense has been getting exploited in the last couple of games, but they have gotten timely stops on occasional drives. Their defensive line has been huge in this area, getting pressure and forcing quarterbacks to have to make tough throws.

Against the Tigers, the Cardinals will need to play at their absolute best to force them into punting situations. If Louisville’s front seven can contain Clemson’s running game on early down situations, it will allow them to pin their ears back for those crucial third-and-long plays and force Lawrence to make a tough throw under pressure. That might be easier said than done given their talent level on the O-line and wide receiver, but the Cards have to at least put themselves in winnable situations on defense.

Will Louisville win the turnover battle?

As always, when you need to spring a big upset, the underdog will need to win the turnover battle. Clemson is at a +1 margin through six games, and Louisville is -1 in that same span.

But the Cards are +3 in their last two games, in large part due to the defense tallying their first three interceptions of the season. They’ve also had two timely fumble recoveries, both of which led to Louisville scoring touchdowns.

If Louisville can force turnovers, they will need to capitalize and score immediately on their next drive. A wasted opportunity like that against a top-three team is one that can’t be afforded. Forcing them will be easier said than done against a team of Clemson’s caliber, but if done, they can have a shot at the upset.

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