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Clemson vs. Louisville Preview: Q&A with Card Chronicle

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Heading into the ACC’s biggest showcase of the year, Mike Rutherford of the Card Chronicle joins us to preview our matchup against the Louisville Cardinals.

NCAA Football: Louisville at Marshall Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

You can read my responses to STS's questions here.

Just a little more than a decade ago, Louisville was in Conference USA. On Saturday, they will come to Death Valley as the #3 team in the nation with a chance to all but clinch an ACC division which includes both Florida State and Clemson. How in the world did they get here?

I was actually talking about this very subject on the radio Tuesday, and I don't think there's a program in the history of college football that has taken a path similar to the one Louisville has.

In 2007, right after Bobby Petrino had nearly led the Cardinals to an appearance in the national title game, Stewart Mandel did an exercise he called the "college football food chain" (or something like that) where he put each program into a specific group respective of its place in the sport's hierarchy. Louisville was the only program that he didn't assign to a group because he said it was too difficult to assess their current state and predict their immediate future. Historically, they were a doormat, but in the few years before that, they had looked like a burgeoning power.

Then Steve Kragthorpe came to town and wrecked the whole thing. Those three years of futility coupled with the conference realignment madness that started around the same time put Louisville right back in a state of flux. Charlie Strong resurrected the program, and then Petrino's return coincided with U of L's admission into its dream conference.

Off the field, it's been a perfect mix of a thousand different things that have gotten the Cardinals to this point. On the field, I think it's a bit simpler. To win in college football, you need good coaches and good quarterbacks (or at least enough of a healthy combination). With a few notable exceptions, Louisville has been blessed with both for the last two decades.

Even taking all that into consideration, it is beyond remarkable that the same program that Conference USA was hoping to vote out of its league in 1996 finds itself in this position 20 years later.

Lamar Jackson has taken a major leap from a season ago. We've heard he didn't fully understand the playbook last season, but what else has changed since Bobby Petrino elected to start Kyle Bolin over him the last time these two teams met.

Pretty much everything, although you hit on the most important factor. Jackson essentially admitted this summer that he had no idea what he was doing at any point last season outside of the Music City Bowl game against Texas A&M. He said that he didn't know the plays, and that when something was called, he would pretty much lock onto one wide receiver, see what he was doing, and then take off and run if that guy wasn't open. With that truth known, it's fairly remarkable that Louisville was able to win eight games last season and that Jackson was as effective as he was.

After a full off-season of digesting the playbook, learning how to read opposing defenses, and spending the whole spring doing nothing but working on his passing, the Lamar Jackson we saw in 2015 is almost unrecognizable. He still has moments where he locks onto one guy, relies on his athleticism too much or takes an unnecessary shot down field, but his evolution has been remarkable, and the otherworldly stats reflect that.

Louisville has only allowed three sacks this season after being near the bottom of the nation in sack rate last season (10.9%). Obviously, Lamar Jackson's speed has something to do with this, but aside from that, what improvement, if any, have you seen from the offensive line this year?

They've been fantastic. Outside of the first quarter of the first game against Charlotte where the 49ers were blitzing seven or eight guys on every play, the line has given Jackson time to throw and giant holes to run through.

Louisville was constantly mixing and matching on the O-line last year, and didn't find a combination it liked until the final three weeks of the regular season. Only one player wound up starting all 13 games, and that was true freshman Geron Christian, who has been very good as a sophomore. Tobijah Hughley is a three-year starter at center who has cleaned up most of the mistakes that plagued his first two seasons on the line, and fellow seniors Kiola Mahoni and Khalil Hunter have also been terrific at the guard spots.

The other thing that really hurt the line last year was the constant swapping of quarterbacks, which resulted in a constant swapping of two completely different offenses. It seemed like the front five never knew what Lamar Jackson was going to do (probably because Lamar himself didn't know what he was going to do), and the constant false start penalties seemed to have a lot to do with a lack of rhythm and difficulty recognizing the changes in cadence.

Having said all that, this is without question the best front seven that the o-line will have faced, and likely the tallest task it will see all season.

What makes me most optimistic about this game is the battle between the Tigers' defensive line and the Cardinals' offensive line. Each week we review our opponents depth chart and look back at those player's recruiting rankings from high school. We found that Louisville has no four or five star recruits currently starting on their offensive line, and has two two-star or former walk-on athletes being heavily relied upon (according to 24/7 Sports). Clemson's defensive line is likely the strength of the defense, if not the team. How do you see this battle in the trenches going and how do you see it impacting Louisville's offensive game plan?

Yeah, I guess the only problem with looking at it that way is that you've also got a three-star quarterback back there who's the heavy favorite right now to win the Heisman Trophy. Still, I see your point. Hughley came to Louisville as a walk-on, and two of the other four starters on the line are junior college transfers. It's the one area where Charlie Strong and his staff failed to recruit effectively, and to be quite frank, it's shown the last two seasons.

Again, though, the line has been terrific through four weeks, and thoroughly dominated a Florida State front seven that Seminole play-by-play man Gene Deckerhoff said he thought was the best he'd ever seen at FSU. They've struggled mightily against Clemson in each of the past two seasons, so we'll find out on Saturday exactly how much they've improved.

Lamar Jackson will be a mismatch for any team Louisville plays. Aside from containing him, what one matchup (positional or player vs. player) gives you the most hope the Cardinals will beat the Tigers?

Louisville's front seven against a Clemson offensive line that has looked shaky in its own right this season.

Even without first round draft pick Sheldon Rankins, Louisville's defensive front is deep and talented, and has been dominant so far this year. Devonte Fields was a preseason All-American for a reason, and has been terrific when going up against non-tempo offenses that live and die with quick-hit passes. Keith Kelsey has been a rock at middle linebacker for what feels like a decade now, and James Hearns has been a revelation off the edge. Big nose tackle DeAngelo Brown is also generating some serious buzz about following in Rankins' footsteps and being a first round pick next spring.

Everyone knows the weapons that Clemson has on offense. The best way to limit those weapons is to stop or disrupt plays quickly in the backfield.

Can you tell us a bit about Todd Grantham's defensive philosophy and what we'll face on Saturday?

He runs that same 3-4 that he always has, and I'd expect his approach to this game to look the same as it has the past couple of years. Louisville will come hard off the edges with Fields, Hearns and cornerbacks, and it will also try to bring layered pressure right up the middle.

While everyone describes his defense simply as a 3-4, Grantham utilizes a lot of hybrid over/under fronts that mix two gap and one gap techniques. He loves big linemen who can both plug up the middle and slide over to end and bring pressure off the edge, which is exactly how he utilized Rankins last year. Along the same lines, Louisville's outside linebackers also play a hybrid LB/DE role that makes it difficult to pinpoint exactly where they are and what they're doing if you're watching the game from the stands as a fan (and you've enjoyed a beverage or two).

Grantham also loves using Georgia transfer Josh Harvey-Clemons in the "star" position, which is a hybrid safety/linebacker role. He'll play some traditional safety, but also come up near the line to help stop the run, bring pressure, or spy a mobile opposing quarterback. After an up-and-down junior campaign in 2015, he's been terrific so far this year. He'll play a monster role when it comes to trying to slow down Watson, Gallman and even Ray-Ray McCloud.

Lastly, how to you assess Louisville's odds to come away with a victory?

It certainly feels like a coin flip game.

Everyone freaking out about Clemson's offense sort of forgets that they did this exact same thing a year ago, and could have easily lost an ugly game at Louisville if the Cardinals hadn't missed a couple of field goals. This was the week a year ago where that offense started clicking and nearly carried them to a national title.

As a fan, I'm giddy at the thought of being inside Memorial Stadium for a primetime night game featuring two top five opponents. As a fan of a road team I want to see win that game, the same scenario is also terrifying.

Having said that, this Louisville group is an extremely laid back bunch that doesn't seem to get phased by much. If they can withstand the early nerves (I'll never forget the Adam Humphries punt return two years ago), I'd be shocked if they don't at least have an opportunity to pull the game out in the 4th quarter.