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Clemson at Louisville
By Joe Nelson

The ACC may be the forgotten Power Five conference at times but the league will be on center stage this week with Georgia Tech and Notre Dame being one of the biggest games of the weekend plus several ACC/B1G clashes taking place on Saturday. While Wake Forest and Syracuse technically opened up league play last week the first big game of the ACC conference season is the Atlantic showdown Thursday night between Clemson and Louisville, here is a look at that key matchup.

Matchup: Clemson Tigers at Louisville Cardinals
Venue: Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium in Louisville, Kentucky
Time/TV: Thursday, Sep. 17, 7:30 PM ET – ESPN
Line: Clemson -6, Over/Under 50½
Last Meeting: 2014, at Clemson (-9½) 23, Louisville 17

While Florida State remains the premier team and favorite in the ACC Atlantic and the conference as a whole, the Atlantic division race is expected to be a closer race in the 2015 season with Clemson and Louisville as chief threats to the Seminoles. Both teams gave Florida State very tough games last season and both were considered ACC title and national playoff sleepers before the season started.

Hopes for making national noise are over for Louisville as the Cardinals are off to a stunning 0-2 start in the second season back in Louisville for Bobby Petrino. After falling behind early against Auburn in the opening week, Louisville nearly rallied back in that game before ultimately losing by seven despite a substantial production edge. After that big national game the Cardinals were perhaps a bit flat last week in the home opener as they were upset by Houston. A 0-3 start would be a tough pill to swallow for a team that has just seven total losses in the past three seasons combined and will still have to play in Tallahassee in the first half of the season.

In two games Louisville has allowed 65 points after allowing just over 21 points per game last season and featuring an elite defense that allowed only 309 yards per game. Louisville has already surrendered 416 rushing yards after allowing just 109 yards per game on the ground last season on 3.3 yards per carry. While the defense has not been as strong as last season the biggest issues through two weeks have been on offense with seven turnovers and difficulty running the ball.

It was a wide opener quarterback competition for the Cardinals and so far freshman Lamar Jackson has seen most of the snaps with Reggie Bonnafon playing a few series against Auburn and Kyle Bolin playing a few series in the Houston game. Jackson has made some dynamic plays on the ground but he has completed just 55 percent of his passes and has been responsible for four turnovers. Will Gardner was the primary quarterback last season and it is not clear when or if he will be ready to return to action after tearing his ACL last season.

Brandon Radcliff has rushed reasonably well for the Cardinals through two weeks but e has seen limited action in part because of the passing situations Louisville has often been in playing from behind. The ball has been well spread around a young receiving corps and the offensive line that had to replace three starters from last season has shown some growing pains.

Clemson has lost to Florida State each of the last three seasons and as a result has finished second in the ACC Atlantic in three straight seasons since winning the conference title in 2011. It has been four straight double-digit win seasons and three straight bowl game wins for the Tigers, beating national forces LSU, Ohio State, and Oklahoma in succession for a great run led by Dabo Swinney. With at least two regular season losses each year Clemson has never really been seriously in the national title hunt however and the next three games figure to make or break the season for Clemson with this tough road test followed by home games with Notre Dame and Georgia Tech to open October after a bye week.

Through two weeks Clemson has delivered back-to-back convincing wins outscoring Wofford and Appalachian State by a combined score of 89-10. While Wofford is a FCS school it is a regional rival and Appalachian State is expected to be one of the top Sun Belt teams this year yet Clemson led 31-0 at the half. The Tigers did catch some breaks with turnovers in that game as they only outgained the Mountaineers by 94 yards but it has been a promising start considering that Clemson lost two of its first three games last season.

Sophomore quarterback DeShaun Watson has played well through two weeks with nearly 450 yards passing and five touchdowns and the Tigers were clearly a better offensive team last season when Watson was healthy. Watson could emerge in the Heisman race and the offense has a lot of potential this season but there are concerns about the defense even with strong numbers through two weeks. Clemson had one of the nation’s top defenses last season, allowing just over 16 points per game and only 261 yards per game. The defense lost seven of the top nine leading tacklers from last season however with the front seven particularly impacted. Through two weeks the new group has looked effective but the real tests are about to begin.

Last season Clemson won 23-17 in this matchup in a game where both teams had very limited production. Watson was injured early in the game as Cole Stoudt led Clemson most of the game and the Tigers amassed just 229 total yards and 12 first downs. Louisville only had 10 first downs as incredibly the teams combined to go 3-36 on 3rd and 4th down attempts. Clemson grabbed the lead early with touchdowns on a punt return and a fumble recovery but Louisville tied the game late in the third quarter before Clemson kicker Ammon Lakip hit two field goals and the defense delivered some big stops, including holding the Cardinals from inside the two-yard line at the end of the game.

While the hopes for Louisville as a national sleeper are over the ACC race is still alive and the Cardinals could at the very least play spoiler. The 0-2 start has featured close losses against quality teams and if the Cardinals can clean up the turnovers they could still have a very successful season. Clemson has a daunting schedule ahead as Florida State is likely still in the driver’s seat but Watson and the Tigers still have the potential for another great season and momentum can build with each win starting with this first big road test.

Historical Trends: Clemson is just 3-7 ATS on the road the past two seasons including going 0-3 ATS as a road favorite last season. Going further back Clemson is on a 24-38-2 ATS run as a road favorite since 1990 and Swinney is 14-15 S/U and 15-14 ATS on the road since he took over in 2009. Bobby Petrino’s Louisville teams are 19-11 ATS at home and 6-5 ATS as an underdog in his five-plus seasons from 2003 to 2006 and since taking over last season. The home underdog track record has not been impressive for Louisville going 9-16 ATS as a home underdog since 1994, including covering in just two of the last 10 instances but last season’s game with Florida State was the only time Petrino has been on the sidelines with Louisville getting points at home and Louisville will be a bigger home underdog Thursday night than they were last season against a defending national title champion Seminoles team that had won 23 games in a row.