This week, we're running a series on the teams capable of dethroning two-time defending ACC champion Clemson next season. Next up, we're looking at Louisville and whether the Cardinals can make up those few yards that separated these two teams last year.
How Louisville can beat Clemson: Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson went head to head Oct. 1 and Louisville lost a close one -- stopping 3 yards shy of the end zone in the final minute -- but the game strengthened Jackson's campaign for the Heisman Trophy. For two months, Jackson was the best player in the country. As Jackson goes, so do the Cardinals.
As he proved last season, Jackson is talented enough to win. He looked like Houdini in the backfield while dodging tacklers, and he nearly escaped Death Valley with a victory. He's a powder keg maneuvering in the pocket, waiting for a sliver of open field to spark a dizzying jaunt through defenses. New offensive line coach Mike Summers might do a better job of creating those openings for Jackson, who then can force a Clemson secondary to focus on him rather than big-play receiving threat Jaylen Smith. Jackson will have to convert on a couple of long throws if a relentless Clemson line has to hesitate to avoid Jackson from breaking free.
The defense loses one of its best players at every level, but the Clemson offense is rebuilding. The Tigers have to travel to Louisville in Week 3, which means their offense won't have much time to build a rhythm. That game also comes after Clemson hosts Auburn, which might finally be able to match a solid offense with its strong defense. If a tired, dysfunctional Clemson offense shows up in Louisville, Jaire Alexander and James Hearns can take advantage by forcing turnovers.
What's holding them back? No team lost more yardage on sacks last season than Louisville. Only two of 128 FBS teams allowed more sacks than the Cardinals. So start there.
There's no question Jackson needs to make gains this offseason as a passer, and his limitations as a thrower led to the offense becoming too predictable late in the season. Another level of difficulty is added to the passing game when the offensive line offers little resistance to opposing defenses, however.
So head coach Bobby Petrino brought in Summers, who succeeded in turning around Florida's offensive line. The Gators were 128th in sacks allowed in 2015 but 71st last season. There is good news in that the Cardinals return both of their starting tackles. Geron Christian and Lukayus McNeil have started for multiple seasons, so Summers inherits experience at those important spots along the line. There is also the addition of 6-foot-7 junior college lineman Ronald Rudd.
A once-strong defense melted down late in the season, too. Petrino changed coordinators, tabbing Peter Sirmon to orchestrate the defense in 2017.
X factor: James Hearns is a name unfamiliar to many, as he was flanked last season by Keith Kelsey, Devonte Fields, DeAngelo Brown and Josh Harvey-Clemons. Hearns' numbers didn't take a backseat, however; he established himself as one of the conference's best edge rushers. An All-ACC honorable mention, he led the Cardinals with eight sacks and was second with 11 tackles for loss. He added seven more quarterback hurries, and no ACC player forced more fumbles than Hearns (five).