One of the most exciting games of 2016 came when the red hot #3 Louisville Cardinals visited to Death Valley. The #5 Tigers were surprising underdogs at home, but took a commanding 28-10 lead into halftime. Turnovers turned the tide in the second half and allowed the Cardinals to score 26 unanswered points and claim a late eight-point lead.
Clemson, truly showing the heart of a champion, did not break. Instead, the offense marched down the field and scored on a Watson-to-Williams TD reception. They’d fail on the game-tying two-point conversion. Despite what had to be crippling fatigue from chasing down Lamar Jackson in a high-snap game (Louisville ended with 99 snaps), they got the ball back to the Tigers for one last offensive possession. They’d capitalize with some Deshaun Watson heroics, as he’d stand in a crumbling pocket and connect with TE Jordan Leggett on a long TD score. The defense would close out the game with the memorable Marcus Edmond tackle of James Quick just shy of the first down marker. The epic win cracked my off-season list top 10 biggest wins in Clemson football history.
Now, Clemson travels to Louisville for an 8pm contest against Lamar Jackson and Louisville. While Auburn may have been the Tigers most challenging overall opponent, Louisville may have the best offense. The College Gameday crew will be in town to hype the matchup and for good reason. Lamar Jackson already has 1,000 yards and is playing at the level he was at the start of 2016. He hasn’t yet faced a quality defense though, and he’ll certainly face one on Saturday. It’ll be strength on strength and one heck of a battle.
Before we delve in, let’s start with our usual caveat.
We've divided the offense and the defense each into three portions. On offense, the starting QB comprises one-third of the rating, the heaviest weight for any single player. The five starting offensive linemen comprise another third, and the two-deep for the remaining skill positions (WR, TE, RB) comprise one-third. They are displayed separately as well as as part of the overall offense average.
Similarly on defense, the two-deep along the D-line, at linebacker, and in the secondary are each weighted to represent one-third of the overall defense rating, regardless of scheme.
We acknowledge there are some players who over-perform their original star rating (e.g., Hunter Renfrow, Lamar Jackson) as well as those who under-perform their star ratings. Nevertheless, recruited talent is strongly correlated with wins on the field. In 2016, this analysis revealed a major talent deficit for Louisville along the O-line. Despite solid performance from their O-line to that point, we cited this as reason for optimism and Clemson validated that optimism by winning at the line of scrimmage.
Also, a few notes specific to this analysis: Jeremy Smith (former Rivals two-star) is listed on the school’s official depth chart, however he is now out for the season. He has been replaced with Malik Williams (former Rivals three-star) in this analysis. Jaire Alexander’s status for this contest is unknown (listed as day-to-day) following a knee injury. He was left in for this analysis, as he appears as the starter on the official depth chart.
Let’s begin with the offense:
While Lamar Jackson is back, Louisville lost a lot from last season. TE Cole Hikutini, one of the ACC’s better receiving TEs departed. At WR, James Quick and Jamari Staples are both gone, and Reggie Bonnafon moved from WR to RB because the situation there is more dire (their emerging WRs are solid). Brandon Radcliff was very good and graduated. RB LJ Scott transferred to Eastern Kentucky and Jeremy Smith was lost for the season with injury.
Additionally, Louisville lost three starters from their offensive line. Fortunately for them, the younger players who have moved into starting roles have a bit more raw talent which is why you see the OL average creep up to 3.20 stars.
Despite all these losses Louisville has one of the most explosive and dynamic offenses in the country. They’re led by reigning Heisman Trophy winner QB Lamar Jackson and Head Coach Bobby Petrino. Lamar Jackson already has five passing TDs and three rushing TDs. He has carried the offense and will certainly stress Clemson’s defense. While last season ended poorly for the Cardinals, anyone who thinks the nation has “figured out” Lamar Jackson is sorely mistaken. If anything, this article explains how teams figured out how to exploit Louisville’s weak offensive line.
When we previewed the Clemson vs. Alabama rematch in this series, we opined that it would come down to Jalen Hurts surrounded by significant talent advantages trying to outplay Deshaun Watson. With a dominant running game and one of the most talented defenses in ages, he would have a much easier road to success and would be asked to do much less. Nevertheless, Watson’s greatness overcame. It’ll be a similar situation here for Kelly Bryant as he now goes up against the best QB in the nation, but is surrounded by advantages.
Clemson has more talent and experience at the skill positions. At WR, Deon Cain and Hunter Renfrow give Bryant much more proven threats than anything Jackson has to work with. At RB, Jackson will be faking handoffs to QB-turned-WR-turned-RB Reggie Bonnafon (former three-star) and JUCO transfer Malik Williams (former three-star). Bryant has three talented backs he can trust with CJ Fuller, Adam Choice, and Tavien Feaster. Clemson’s skill position players average 3.70 compared to just 3.00 for Louisville. Four-star talents like Deon Cain and Ray-Ray McCloud make explosive plays easier for a QB!
The difference in the two offensive lines may be the biggest deficit Lamar Jackson must make up though. Although the Cards average a respectable 3.20 stars among the OL starters and have a new (and by all-accounts improved) OL coach, they’re inexperienced. They replace three starters and will start two freshmen. Clemson meanwhile brings back four of five starters and is enjoying a successful start to the season from new center Justin Falcinelli.
Kelly Bryant must leverage these advantages to put some points on the board this week as 14 won’t be enough at Louisville. Fortunately, Louisville’s defense won’t be as suffocating as Auburn’s. Let’s take a look:
Last week we worried about an Auburn defensive line that averaged 4.25 stars. The concern was validated as they made their mark on the game and made it very difficult for Clemson to run the ball. This week, things should be more manageable. Louisville’s defensive line average is more than a full star below Auburn’s at 3.13. This should bode well for Clemson’s rushing attack. Meanwhile, Clemson’s talented defensive line, which averages 3.88 stars, will force Lamar Jackson to make quick decisions and collapse the pocket far quicker than either Purdue or UNC’s D-lines.
All six LBs on Louisville’s two-deep are former Rivals three-star recruits. Most notable is the absence of Keith Kelsey who led the team in tackles each of the past two years. Clemson has a big advantage here as well, particularly with the emergence of Dorian O’Daniel at strongside linebacker. Against Auburn, he was seen tracking ball carriers down across the field, picking up 14 tackles and 1.5 sacks. He even shifted to different linebacker positions when Clemson moved into other defensive formations. Continued superb linebacker play will be critical in preventing Lamar Jackson from creating explosive plays.
Where things get the most interesting is in the secondary. It’s Clemson’s least talented unit from a recruited-talent standpoint and they’re still plagued with defensive pass interference issues, but they have the advantage in this matchup.
Louisville has allowed 7 passing TDs so far this season (just 1 rushing TD). Jaire Alexander, a star CB who led the team in sacks last season, had a bit of a scare with a knee injury. Fortunately, there is no serious damage, but they want to wait until he is 100% before he steps back on the field. If that isn’t Saturday night, Kelly Bryant may find some opportunities in the passing game. Windows were tight against a tough Auburn secondary, but some sharp route-running by Hunter Renfrow, 50-50 ball prowess by Deon Cain, and explosiveness by Ray-Ray McCloud gave the Tigers just enough. It should come easier this week, especially if Jaire Alexander is out.
Clemson is the more talented team. Louisville has the most electric player in the country playing the most important position in football. The game is at night on the road. It won’t be easy.
Clemson is 3-0 against Louisville since they joined the ACC, and all have been fantastic games. This should be another.
Clemson has beaten Louisville 3 years in a row. But it’s been AGONIZINGLY close all 3 times… pic.twitter.com/9Z2aCKDBJl— #DaHale (@DavidHaleESPN) September 12, 2017
While Louisville’s offense has been fantastic through two games, their defense has struggled. Losing DC Todd Grantham only to hire the defensive coordinator Mississippi State was replacing seems like a tough downgrade for a program with impressive athletic department revenues. Grantham had done a particularly good job of slowing Clemson’s offense in past matchups too.
Much like the the task Jalen Hurts faced in the 2017 National Championship game, Kelly Bryant will be faced with out-dueling an ultra-elite QB, but will have several talent advantages around him to help him do it. In this case, those talent advantages, particularly on defense, will be more vast than in the National Championship game. Clemson’s defense not only averages 0.52 stars more than Louisville’s, but they benefit from having the best defensive coordinator in the country. On top of that, they’ll put their strength - an outstanding D-line - up against a green behind the ears Louisville O-line.
Lamar Jackson will be running for his life, and will probably run into the end zone while doing it. He is the type of transcendent talent that can carry an offense. Clemson won’t have the luxury of playing conservatively and settling for a win in a defensive struggle like they did against Auburn. Fortunately, Kelly Bryant is proving to be a quality QB himself. Facing a vulnerable defense, expect him to connect on just enough key passes to get the job done and pull the favorites (-2.5) through for a big win in the national spotlight.