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College football forecast: Make or break for Cards, Jackson

Matt Youmans  
VSiN senior editor

September 16, 2017 07:32 AM

lmjackson
In two games, Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson has piled up 1,010 total yards. The Cardinals are 3-point home underdogs against Clemson today.
© USA Today Sports Images

On a Saturday in September, it’s not cliche to call something a must-win game. The stakes will be high when Lamar Jackson leads Louisville against Clemson.

This is essentially a College Football Playoff elimination game in prime time. For the Cardinals, a win could make their season and a loss would break it. It’s a fascinating matchup that pits Jackson, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, against a Tigers defense that might be the toughest in the nation.

As great as Jackson was for most of last season, he has been even better through two games this season. The Louisville quarterback has piled up 1,010 total yards, including 525 yards and six touchdowns in a win at North Carolina last week.

A few hours after the Cardinals rolled up 705 yards against the Tar Heels, the Clemson defense racked up 11 sacks and limited Auburn to 117 total yards in a 14-6 win in Death Valley. A great defense usually deserves the edge in matchups of contrasting styles, but Jackson is a unique talent, and this showdown is on his home turf.

Clemson’s defense was dominant a week ago, but the numbers are a little deceiving. Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham is only slightly more mobile than a mannequin, and he blew several opportunities for big plays. Jackson is hell on wheels, with an improved ability to read defenses and exploit the weaknesses.

A year ago in Death Valley, Jackson fared well against an equally tough Tigers defense, passing for 295 yards and rushing for 162 in a 42-36 loss that went to the wire. He threw the ball 44 times, ran it 31 times and came up one play short.

Clemson has not dropped off much after splitting with Alabama in the past two national championship games. After losing quarterback Deshaun Watson, wide receiver Mike Williams and running back Wayne Gallman to the NFL, Tigers coach Dabo Swinney is reloading with promising young talent.

Still, Kelly Bryant, the Tigers’ first-year starting quarterback, is going on the road for the first time. It’s tough to envision Bryant outplaying Jackson, even with a stronger Clemson defense to help his cause.

The Cardinals crushed Florida State on the same field in a similar Atlantic Coast Conference showdown a year ago. With a soft schedule on the horizon, and assuming Jackson avoids injuries, a win could launch Louisville’s run to a playoff spot.

This probably should be a pick’em game. The Cardinals, behind the best player in college football, are the play as 3-point underdogs.

Other plays: BRIGHAM YOUNG (plus-16½) over Wisconsin; Purdue (plus-7) over MISSOURI; Purdue-MISSOURI (Under 76½); Tennessee-FLORIDA (Under 49½); WYOMING (plus-15) over Oregon; Oregon-WYOMING (Over 61½); Texas (plus-16) over USC; Stanford (-8½) over SAN DIEGO STATE.

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