With a critical to trip to Raleigh to take on North Carolina State coming up on Thursday, the Louisville Cardinals find themselves immersed in the ACC portion of their schedule with the goal of winning the conference. The ACC is pretty loaded from top to bottom, however, and the reigning National Champions down in Death Valley are just the tip of the iceberg. Can U of L overcome a disheartening loss to Clemson and seize the conference crown?
The good news for the Cards is that the worst portion of their ACC slate is mostly over. Apart from the Wolfpack this week, Louisville’s remaining schedule features mostly good-but-not-great squads like Florida State, Wake Forest, and Virginia. That game against the Seminoles is on the road, but FSU hasn’t been the same since quarterback Deandre Francois was lost for the season to a knee injury. As long as the Cardinals can show some of the same intensity on defense from here on out that they brought to the table against non-conference cupcakes Kent State and Murray State, they’re going to be tough to beat, but finding a running back who’ll take heat off of Lamar Jackson will be essential to avoiding a trap game.
To be the champs, you have to beat the champs. So does Clemson actually have a game they can lose on their remaining schedule, especially with first-year starting quarterback Kelly Bryant hitting his stride at exactly the right time of year? They do have 4-1 Wake Forest coming up this week, but the Demon Deacons haven’t beaten anyone of note, and that one loss was against to Florida State.
The only games that should cause the Tigers any concern are their battles against Georgia Tech and NC State. The latter is on the road against a Wolfpack offense averaging over 30 points per game, and the former is against Georgia Tech’s triple-option offense, a formidable challenge for any team to defend. The Tigers certainly seem up to the task, with three dominant wins over ranked opponents–Auburn, Louisville, and Virginia Tech–already on their resume. Still, last year’s team was similarly good but lost to Pitt on a last-second field goal; head coach Dabo Swinney will need to ensure that his squad doesn’t buy too heavily into its own hype.
NORTH CAROLINA STATE
Louisville’s Thursday night opponent rolls into the ACC schedule with one of college football’s hottest offenses. Quarterback Ryan Finley is completing 72% of his passes with nine touchdowns and no turnovers, and receiver Jaylen Samuels is one of the NCAA’s hidden weapons, with 321 yards and three touchdowns receiving and 125 yards and five touchdowns rushing in a campaign that should be receiving some serious Heisman buzz.
That momentum will be crucial over the next month, as the Wolfpack goes toe-to-toe with Louisville, Pitt, Notre Dame, and Clemson in consecutive order. Pitt is the only non-ranked opponent on the list, but they’ll get the Cardinals and Tigers at home. The major concern is the performance of the defense, which has only held one opponent–FCS school Furman–under 20 points all season. That’ll get the job done against lightweights, but they’re going to need to shape up over the next month against a group of the NCAA’s best scoring offenses.
THE COASTAL DIVISION
As part of the ACC Atlantic Division, Louisville only solves half the equation by finishing ahead of Clemson and NC State, if indeed they’re able to do so. The Coastal Division has three power teams of their own. Unbeaten Miami sits at the top of the division right now, coming off of a crushing win over previously unbeaten Duke. Their offense features a pair of running backs with three touchdowns apiece, but apart from the Duke game, none of the Hurricanes’ opponents have been competitive schools, so we’ve yet to get a feel for what they’re fully capable of.
Virginia Tech will give them plenty to worry about. With a win over #22 West Virginia to start the year and a pair of shutouts against Delaware and Old Dominion, head coach Justin Fuente is way ahead of schedule in getting the Hokies to the elite level they played at during the peak years of Frank Beamer’s tenure. Sure, losing to Clemson at home last week hurts, but they’ll get another shot at the Tigers should they take the division. If they can get their offense back to the level it was at for the first four games of the year, they’ll be a scary opponent for anyone.
Georgia Tech can’t be counted out either. Their defense has held every opponent except Tennessee to 17 points or less, and the aforementioned triple-option has produced four players with at least 100 yards rushing; their ground capabilities are all the more dangerous paired with one of the nation’s lowest turnover rates. With any team that plays the Yellow Jackets’ style, it all comes down to execution; just focus on doing what you’re best at, and try to disrupt the opponent from doing the same. Easier said than done, but it does look like head coach Paul Johnson has what might be his strongest team in his whole tenure with GT.
A win over NC State on Thursday doesn’t negate the tiebreaker advantage Clemson currently holds on the Cards. With Georgia Tech having been bested by an underperforming Tennessee squad, and NC State unlikely to put up the kind of defensive performance that’ll stop Bryant from having an explosive game, it’s difficult to foresee the Tigers hitting another roadblock before the ACC Championship game. For right now, the best that Louisville can do is win out and hope that two other conference opponents manage to do them a huge favor.
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