The chances were slim for Clemson to host College Game Day this year, but Lamar Jackson and the Louisville Cardinals were kind enough demolish three teams in route to the primetime matchup in Clemson. Clemson is 2-1 hosting Game Day since 2013, with wins against Georgia and Notre Dame but a huge loss to FSU still haunts fans to this day.
Louisville is talented – Lamar Jackson is an indescribably good and words don’t do him justice. But Louisville is not the 2013 Seminoles whom demolished everyone in their path as they became one of the best teams in history. A team so good that the players were bored and played hangman in the middle of the game on a whiteboard only comes around once in a few years.
At one point last year, 21 of the 22 starters for FSU that year were starting in the NFL. Now not all of them are starting, but every starter has been drafted and many more players are undrafted free agents and backups. The entire point of the above is to demonstrate that whatever fears that are residing in your heart about a collapse are likely unfounded.
Louisville certainly looks the part with four blowout wins against UNC Charlotte (not a surprise), Syracuse (interesting), FSU (shocking), and Marshall (now expected). Their offensive statistics are other worldly as they average 63 points per game. Lamar Jackson has thrown for 13 touchdowns and 1330 yards averaging 10.56 yards per attempt, while rushing for 526 yards, 8.6 yards per carry, and 12 touchdowns. Their top three receivers have averaged over 22 yards per catch, while his passing touchdown distribution has been relatively even among the various players.
He is their leading rusher and passer, and has more touchdowns by himself than most FBS teams do as a team. Brandon Radcliff is no slouch either as he has rushed for 427 yards for 9.3 a clip, which is basically earning a first down every time he runs the ball. The Cardinals are also “balanced”, with 364 passing yards (11th FBS) and 318 rushing yards (3rd FBS) per game.
The problem is that there are two fatal flaws behind Louisville’s operation: it is all about Lamar Jackson, and if he went down, they would struggle to be ranked. They certainly have talent at other positions, and the Tiger defense is also green at the corresponding defensive positions. Hopefully Lamar Jackson stays healthy so this premise is not tested, but just because he is in the game doesn’t mean he has to be a superhuman.
Charlotte is a bottom dwelling FBS team, while Syracuse and Marshall do not have the horses to contain the Cardinals. While Louisville is better than FSU, they are not 43 points better than FSU. FSU does not know how to defend the zone read play and has a below average defensive coordinator. Ever since Jeremy Pruitt left, their defense has slowly decayed. FSU was missing Derwin James, whom is just as good or better than Jalen Ramsey. Momentum destroyed the Seminoles as they simply gave up mid game (which is what often happens in massive blowouts.
So is Clemson destined to suffer FSU’s fate? Absolutely not.
Clemson has the best defensive coordinator in the country, and he knows how to defend the zone read. Coach Venables may not have all of the answers but if anyone can game plan to stop Lamar Jackson, its him. Clemson has a stellar front four, and the interior linemen can pressure Lamar Jackson while the defensive ends attempt to contain him.
Clemson is also one of the most fundamentally sound and best tackling teams in the country, something that Louisville has not faced yet. It is much easier to say “tackle Lamar Jackson” than it is to do so, because he is so talented that he has drawn many Michael Vick comparisons.
The thesis is obvious – contain Jackson, and Clemson wins the defensive side of the ball. If this happens will depend on execution and scheme, but if Clemson fans haven’t learned to trust Venables and the defense yet, they never will. Coach Venables will put Clemson in the best position to win the game on the defensive side of the ball.
Clemson’s offense has been stymied for the first two meetings of the series. The first time Watson left the game and the defense rallied the offense to a win. Last year the Tigers fought their way to a Thursday road trip win early in the season, and the play calling was criticized as too conservative. Obviously the concerns were unfounded as the Tigers ran the table only to lose to Alabama in the National Championship.
Clemson’s offense has admittedly struggled this year, with their best half of football coming last game as they put up 23 on Georgia Tech in the first half. Clemson has all the talent in the world, but a combination of offensive line struggles and skill player struggles have hampered them from showing their true potential.
Louisville has an excellent creative defensive coordinators and some good players, but none bring the notoriety that Jackson and the offense bring.
The drops are not as prevalent as in the first two games, and Watson has improved as the season has gone on. Certainly he is not in his 2015 form yet but Watson shines the brightest in the largest stages, and no stage this year is as bright as this one.
The receivers have been a mix of talent and frustration, but the past two weeks they have improved their performance and are looking more like the vaunted group the nation thought they were. Losing Renfrow hurts, and a couple of players have struggled in different areas, but Ray Ray McCloud has exploded onto the scene and provides a new flair to the offense.
The obvious question mark is the offensive line. Players have been rotated in and out both for depth purposes and for purposes of finding the best five players. The line has some very good individual players, but can they cohesively work together (especially in the run game) in order to keep the offense moving? The answer to this question will determine Clemson’s offensive success.
On special teams, Clemson has the clear advantage. While both teams have excellent returners, Clemson has a consistent kicker and a serviceable punter while Louisville has a struggling kicker and a new punter.
While it is quite repetitive to say that “games are won in the trenches”, it is true in every game, and more important in this game than most games.
To the doubters: since when has Clemson let the fans down in the last three years? Every loss has been against teams of equal or better talent, and the losses have become fewer as the years have progressed. In the end, experience and consistency will win out as the Tigers shoot down the Cardinal’s championship dreams. Prediction: Clemson 24 Louisville 22