Clemson and Louisville have gotten off to nearly opposite starts in the 2015 season. The Tigers enter Thursday’s showdown 2–0 but relatively untested after cruising to victories over Wofford and Appalachian State. Louisville has had more test than it could handle and still seeks its first win after dropping its opener to Auburn and a stunner to Houston. But a win over the Tigers would quickly right the ship for the Cardinals and potentially put them on a path to an ACC Atlantic Division title. Here are five storylines to watch.
1. How will Clemson’s rebuilt line handle a test?
The Tigers return just one starter from last year’s offensive line, a unit that allowed an 8.82% sack percentage and ranked 101st in adjusted line yards. So far Clemson has allowed just two sacks this season, but now faces its first real threat. Louisville’s defense got off to a rough start, failing to sack Auburn’s Jeremy Johnson, but rebounded with two sacks last week, both by junior linebacker Keith Kelsey. The Cardinals boast some solid pass-rushers; in addition to Kelsey, Louisville brings Devonte Fields, a former Big 12 defensive player of the year at TCU. The Tigers must keep quarterback Deshaun Watson upright.
2. Can Louisville find a steady answer at QB?
Through two games the Cardinals have already used three different options at quarterback. Kyle Bolin had some success against Houston last week and nearly rallied Louisville back behind two straight touchdown drives in the fourth quarter. Bolin’s stats definitely give him an edge over Reggie Bonnafon, who played against Auburn, and Lamar Jackson, who also played against the Tigers and started last week’s matchup with Houston before Bolin relieved him. Bolin averages the most yards per attempt of the three (8.72 compared to Jackson’s 5.70 and Bonnafon’s 5.15), but only Jackson offers a dual-threat element. The Cougars kept him in check, though, holding him to just 16 yards on 12 carries.
3. Will Deshaun Watson seize his first big stage?
Watson shined last season, but his brilliance was limited to the games in which he stayed on field. He broke his hand against the Cardinals last fall before returning, only to sprain his LCL after throwing just six passes against Georgia Tech and then tear his ACL in practice. The sophomore has shown no lingering effects of the ACL tear to date, completing 37 of 48 passes for 442 yards with five touchdowns and an interception. He hasn’t run much, but the Tigers haven’t needed that part of his game to win. Now that the competition gets tougher, how will Watson fare? A big performance on national TV could be the start of a Heisman Trophy run.
4. Can the Cardinals avoid more costly turnovers?
It’s rare that the biggest question marks about a Bobby Petrino team all come on the offensive side of the ball. But such is the case so far with Louisville. The Cardinals wrecked themselves Saturday with a string of turnovers, including three from Jackson. His red-zone fumble killed a drive that could have put his team ahead 21–10 in the third quarter. Louisville recorded a better yards-per-play average than Houston, but a barrage of turnovers allowed the Cougars to pull the upset. Ball security has to be at premium for whomever the Cardinals start under center. Clemson’s defense is inexperienced, returning just three starters from last year, but has playmakers in Shaq Lawson, Ben Boulware and Mackensie Alexander.
5. Will either team look like a conference champ?
Given Florida State’s personnel losses the past two years, particularly Jameis Winston this off-season, both the Tigers and Cardinals drew preseason buzz as potential usurpers of the Seminoles’ crown as the ACC champion. Louisville’s expectations have fallen sharply after its 0–2 start, but neither loss harms its in-conference pursuits; if the Cardinals can make an immediate turnaround, their ACC goals are still attainable. Louisville hasn’t opened a season 0–3 since 1984.
Clemson has begun its season exactly according to plan, though its wins haven’t revealed much about the Tigers’ chances. They had to replace a lot from last year’s 10-win group, so the program's chances of surpassing Florida State rest on the ability to reload. Thursday offers the first true indication of whether Clemson has the overall talent to take down the Seminoles and possibly earn a College Football Playoff berth. Regardless of the outcome, the ACC title race will undoubtedly be a little more clear by the end of Thursday night.