Louisville can take a big — no, make that huge — step in assuming control of the ACC Atlantic Division race when it plays Clemson Saturday in one of the marquee matchups of the season.
The two undefeated teams will kick off at 8 p.m. ET (ABC) at Memorial Stadium in Clemson.
If the third-ranked Cardinals win, they would own victories over both of the other two teams rated as division contenders, having routed Florida State 63-20 in their meeting earlier this season. A loss to the fifth-ranked Tigers opens the way for a three-way fight among the Cardinals, Tigers, and Seminoles.
The 4-0 Cardinals are already 2-0 in conference play with a win over Syracuse to go with the victory over the Seminoles. Also 4-0 overall, Clemson is 1-0 in league play with a win over Georgia Tech in its last outing.
Even Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, who always contends that the Tigers’ upcoming game is their biggest of the season, has to concede the game’s significance.
“Some games have a little more pizazz than others — that’s the biggest thing with this one,” Swinney said.
The Cardinals have been looking forward to it ever since whipping the Seminoles in Louisville, and it’s a credit to them that they avoided a letdown and demolished Marshall last week 59-28.
“I’ve been in a predicament before when we thought about something else in the future. We ended up losing and I wasn’t having that,” Cardinals quarterback Lamar Jackson said. “I wanted to focus. We wanted to win. We wanted to play Clemson and be undefeated just like them.”
Jackson himself wasn’t satisfied with his performance, especially after being limited to 62 yards on the ground. Though he threw for 417 yards and five touchdowns, he gave himself harsh marks after the game.
“F,” he said.
Don’t take any classes that Jackson teaches, with those grading standards.
Clemson-Louisville should live up to its billing. The Tigers haven’t looked as dominating as some expected, but they are still undefeated and capable of putting up big numbers.
Quarterback Deshaun Watson is again a Heisman Trophy contender, along with Jackson, and can outrun cornerbacks down the field or stop on a dime and wing it over the safeties’ heads. Clemson will be the fastest and most athletic team the Cardinals will see in ACC play, except perhaps during their own practices.
This will be just the second game in the 74-year history of Memorial Stadium to feature two Top 5 teams. The other was three years ago when No. 3 Florida State took on the Tigers, who were No. 5 at the time. The Seminoles won that one 51-14.
“These are the type of games you relish having the opportunity to be a part of,” Swinney said. “They all count, but when you get a Top 5 matchup, those are unique. It’s going to be a great night.”
The primary task for Clemson will be slowing down the nation’s most prolific offense. Behind Jackson, Louisville leads the nation in total offense (682 yards per game), scoring offense (63.5) and first downs (125).
“Everybody’s having a hard time with him for the same reason — he’s a great player, an elite guy,” Swinney said. “He’s probably been the best guy in the country through four games. He leads the nation in rushing touchdowns. You’re not dealing with just another guy. This is an elite player. We’re going to have to play our best.”
Clemson has a defense that could prove up to the task. Despite losing eight starters off last year’s group, coordinator Brent Venables has the Tigers’ defense clicking on all cylinders once again. Clemson ranks No. 3 in the country in total defense (218.5) and No. 5 nationally in scoring defense (11.0).
“First of all, our staff does a great job recruiting,” Swinney said of the secret to that success. “To have consistency you have to recruit well, then develop those guys — that’s the key. And we have the best defensive coordinator in the country. He does an incredible job.”
Lamar Jackson and the Cardinals appear to be on a mission. There’s no easy answer to stop the Louisville QB as he can do damage both running and through the air. The Clemson front seven is talented and athletic but they have not seen anyone like Jackson this season. While Deshaun Watson looked like he was getting in rhythm last week at Georgia Tech, he has not been the same player as last year. Too much Lamar in this one as the Cardinals continue their march to a College Football Playoff berth.
Pick to Win
Louisville 34, Clemson 24