The preseason hype around the ACC opener for both of these teams was extremely high. With Louisville starting the season 0-2, that hype has subsided a bit but a Thursday night, blackout game will always be a big event nationally. The Tigers have started off the season hot with two wins against lesser competition. Louisville poses the first true challenge even though the Cards haven't fared too well in their first two games.
The best quarterback in the ACC is an easy question to answer. It's Deshaun Watson and it's not even close. Watson is a sophomore that missed chunks of his true freshman season due to multiple injuries. He's come back this year and done everything he did well last year with the exception of running the ball. Everyone wondered if Watson would be timid or if he would run a little more cautiously, but I think Dabo Swinney and his new offensive coordinators Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott have avoided putting their quarterback in harm's way. Watson hasn't broken out to show off his running skills yet, and he also hasn't kept the ball much on zone read runs. I won't pretend to know if the coaches are playing it safe against lesser competition, or if Watson is a little timid but I will say that I think we find out on Thursday.
Watson's strength is his accuracy and that has been on full display so far this year. Clemson not only likes to throw quick screens like most spread teams, but they will also throw plenty of deep go routes down the sideline as well as deep in routes which seem to be Watson's favorite. Louisville's safeties have struggled to cover slot receivers this year, so I wouldn't be surprised to see Watson look for that matchup often.
If there's an area where Clemson has struggled over the last few years it has been in the running game. Until last year the Tigers routinely had a feature back that put up solid but not great numbers. Some of that could be attributed to having a running quarterback, but it is still something that stands out because there haven't been a lot of big plays from the running game lately. Wayne Gallman is the next feature back in line and Dabo has been singing his praises for the last few weeks. Gallman is a power back with some serious burst through the hole. He's a tall runner who Dabo compared to Eddie George (I'm hoping only because he runs tall like George). Gallman can run through some tackles and he's exactly the type of back Louisville has struggled to tackle lately. When Gallman needs a breather, C.J. Davidson is his backup. Davidson is a former track guy that can do a little bit of everything for the Tigers.
The loss of leading receiver Mike Williams was a big blow for Clemson as he was the team's deep threat last season. Williams injured his neck on a touchdown catch in week one and questions were raised about who would replace his production. Cherone Peake who was a big time prospect coming out of high school but hadn't lived up to the hype instantly became a guy that fans looked to to take over as the downfield threat. Peake has played well in that role so far as he had two downfield touchdowns last week and looked good even though he doesn't have Williams' speed. Artavis Scott is a statistical anomaly as almost all of his receiving yardage has come after the catch in his career. Scott is the quick screen guy for this offense and he is unbelievably good at it. Scott does a great job of picking his way through the defense if he doesn't have a land and if he's given a lane you might as well say bye. Louisville had issues with Houston when they sped up their offense and Demarcus Ayers made a few plays on quick screens. That can't happen against Clemson because Scott will run wild.
Another guy that has stepped up for Clemson is true freshman Ray-Ray McCloud. McCloud and Deon Cain were two of the top recruits in Clemson's class and with the need for more bodies at the receiver spot, both have seen significant time on the field. McCloud gives the Tigers another option in the slot other than Scott. Where this becomes an issue is when Clemson goes even with a bunch formation like we saw Houston do last week. We all knew Ayers was getting the ball but that might not be the case with Clemson and Scott. McCloud is a speedster who can make guys miss, too and Louisville will have to be aware of both.
The position group on the offensive side of the ball that no one has a solid feeling about is the offensive line. The Tigers returned one whole starter from last year's group and they also start a true freshman at left tackle. Mitch Hyatt was the second ranked tackle in the 2015 class and Dabo has entrusted him with protecting the best player on his team. The other spots are manned by two fifth year seniors who have waited their turn to get a chance and former four-star right guard Tyrone Crowder. The line hasn't played poorly, but they haven't dominated like they should have. They've not opened up holes for the running game that one might expect and they (along with some backups during garbage time) have given up five sacks in two games. Watson is an elusive guy but he's seen multiple guys in his face and some twists and stunts that the offensive line didn't handle well left a free rusher to get onto Watson too quickly for him to react.
KEY PLAYERS: QB Deshaun Watson, RB Wayne Gallman, WR Artavis Scott, LT Mitch Hyatt, C Ryan Norton