It’s been a dream season thus far for Louisville, a program that just 11 years ago was a Conference USA member. They’ve been nothing short of prolific as they’ve raced out to a 4-0 start and a #3 national ranking. They’ve earned it all, scoring 59+ points in every game. They boat raced two ACC Atlantic opponents including the Florida State Seminoles who were ranked #3 at the time.
Lamar Jackson grabbed hold of the starting QB job last season and was electric down the stretch, leading to his dark horse Heisman status coming into this season. With a better grasp of the offense, he’s been more than superb. He has 13 passing touchdowns and 12 rushing touchdowns (for reference, Watson has 9 and 0). He’s moved from a dark horse candidate to a leading candidate (along with Christian McCaffrey).
Louisville will have the national stage at prime time with a chance to show they’ve grown into an elite program. After opening as 3.5 point underdogs, they’re now road favorites over the defending ACC Champion Clemson Tigers. While the early season resume and media hype may lead one to pick Louisville in this game, the recruited talent says something much different. Let’s look at the offense.
First, a couple of caveats. Lamar Jackson is playing far above his 3-star rating. Likewise, running back Brandon Radcliff and receivers James Quick, Jamari Staples, and Reggie Bonnafon are easily out-playing their 3.00 average. Louisville returned 17 starters and that experience is working in their favor.
The advantage for Clemson may be more notable in the second-string where the Tigers have young four-stars athletes like running back Adam Choice, tight end Garrett Williams, and wide receiver Deon Cain and Louisville has young three-star athletes.
While the Tigers O-line play has certainly regressed some after losing Eric Mac Lain and Joe Gore, the raw talent is there and they’ve been good in pass blocking. More interesting though is when Louisville has the ball and their O-line has to go against Clemson’s D-line. It could be strength on weakness. Let’s take a look at at that matchup a bit closer:
Louisville will have at least two former 2-star recruits in their interior O-line trying to stop Dexter Lawrence and Carlos Watkins. Their interior O-linemen are a bit smaller than ours (they all weigh in below 315lbs), but they’re not mid-major size either (e.g., Georgia State’s starting center is listed at 280lbs on OurLads.com).
Last season, Louisville finished 127th in sack rate (10.9%), but they appear improved. Louisville has allowed only three sacks (the same number as Clemson). Surely some of this is player development and the line gelling together. Lamar Jackson’s escape-ability likely has a lot to do with it also.
Still, Clemson’s D-line will also be the best they’ve face all year. They were able to hold up just fine against FSU, but the ‘Noles were without DE Josh Sweat and rank just 68th in S&P+ defense. Marshall’s defense is also ranked in the 60s by the S&P+ while Syracuse isn’t even in the top 100.
Their O-line has performed admirably so far this season, but their performance a season ago and their original recruiting metrics may point to some degree of fool’s gold in their success. The question is, do you trust four 2016 games worth of data or recruiting rankings combined with all of last season’s data? If Clemson wins this game, it’ll likely be because the Tigers won this battle in the trenches.
Now, on to the defense, where Brent Venables has once again done his magic.
Here the numbers are a bit closer, but Clemson holds the clear advantage. Clemson’s defensive line is the strongest unit on either team with a 4.25 star average, according to 24/7. Louisville has their fair share of talent too, especially in the secondary where they brought in a 4-star and a 5-star recruit via transfer.
It appears Bobby Petrino is maximizing his talent and has the experience factor working in his favor as Louisville returned the most starters in the ACC. Their 3-star QB looks like a 5-star and their skill position players are outperforming their past recruiting ratings. Clemson must dictate the uptempo pace they want and get into the underbelly of Louisville’s depth chart where programs that don’t recruit four and five star talent are much weaker.
Louisville’s offensive line, which was awful last season, has held up thus far, but will face its toughest test. Their ability to protect Jackson and create running lanes for Radcliff is the biggest question mark for the Cardinals in this game. Clemson must capitalize on its talent advantage in the trenches. If the Tigers defensive line can control the line of scrimmage in a fashion similar to what they did in Atlanta last Thursday, then I’ll take the Tigers. If not, it could be a long night.