LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - The good ol’ folks from Clemson are coming to town and they’re convinced their football team, ranked No. 2 in one poll and third in another, is going to put a whupping on the Louisville Cardinals and show the world that Lamar Jackson did not deserve to win last year’s Heisman Trophy over their Deshaun Watson, who only managed to complete a championship season by dazzling Alabama in the national championship game.
But as Lee Corso of ESPN’s GameDay crew likes to say, “Not so fast, my friends.”
Here in The Ville, we welcome the visitors from South Carolina, even though we know they’re going to plaster their infernal paw prints all over our restaurants and hotels. That’s because we also know they’re also going to leave a whole lot of their trademark $2 bills in local establishments, including Churchill Downs.
As the Internet has it, the tradition of the $2 bills began in 1977, when the Tigers played Georgia Tech in Atlanta for what was supposed to be the last time. The Tech people felt that Clemson folks didn’t spend enough money when they came to town, so the Tiger faithful decided to prove them wrong by buying stuff with $2 bills that would show their spending power.
Since $2 is the basic betting unit at the race track, this should work out well for both the Clemson folks and Churchill. Perhaps some enterprising reporter will ask the home of the Kentucky Derby how many $2 bills it put in the bank after the Clemson people staggered out of town on paws made sore by what will happen beginning at 8 p.m. Saturday in Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium.
I mentioned Corso and the ESPN SportsCenter team. They will be in town for the game, certifying Louisville as the capital of college football for a day. At the end of their popular morning show from the stadium, it will be up to Corso, who coached UofL from 1969-1972, to don the mascot head from the team he expects to win. I know it’s hokey, but it works.
I expect Corso to put on the Tiger head. I think he will buy into the argument that, even without Watson, Clemson is bigger, stronger, faster, and deeper than the Cards. After all, didn’t they just beat a good Auburn team? And isn’t UofL little more than Jackson left, Jackson right, Jackson up the middle, and Jackson passing?
Well, yes. But I still advise Corso to go for the red Cardinal bird head. I think Jackson may well be the most exciting college football player ever, and I think he wants to put all that Watson-should-have-won-the-Heisman business to rest once and for all.
I also believe it’s time for UofL coach Bobby Petrino to come up with a game plan that proves he’s still one of the best offensive minds in the game. The Cards got past Purdue and North Carolina without showing much except that Jackson may be even better as a junior than he was as a sophomore. I expect a lot more wrinkles, twists, and surprises for the Clemson defense, which is really, really good. The Tigers have a way of smothering the life out of ordinary offenses and stomping that sucker flat.
But because of Jackson, UofL is far from ordinary. I can’t say enough about this kid’s talent. Every time he touches the ball, he’s a threat to do something extraordinary. If there are any football fans in town who have not seen him in person, they should do so while they have the chance. They will not likely see his kind again.
I’m not worried about UofL’s ability to put points on the board. But I am concerned about the Cardinal defense’s ability to contain a Tiger offense now led by junior quarterback Kelly Bryant, a sort of Watson on training wheels. The Tiger offense isn’t nearly as spectacular as the one that showcases Jackson, but it’s efficient. In fact, that’s the Clemson trademark under Coach Dabo Swinney.
Here’s what a rival coach told Sports Illustrated:
“These guys are well-coached and very good fundamentally within what they do. There’s a reason they’ve hung 75 points on Alabama the last two years. It’s that they have what we call multiples; they don’t have one guy that has 90 catches and everybody else is at 20 or something like that. It’s spread out.”
Since UofL joined the Atlantic Coast Conference four years ago, the football rivalry between the Cardinals and the Tigers has grown in importance. Although the Cards have yet to win, the games all have been close and entertaining. But the Cards must win before it can legitimately be called one of the best new rivalries in college football.
So that’s part of the motivation for UofL. So is redemption for the way the team fell part at the end of last season, losing its last two regular-season games to underdogs Houston and Kentucky and its bowl game to LSU. That collapse seemed to taint Jackson’s reputation with the media. He didn’t get nearly as much attention over the summer as a returning Heisman winner should. It was almost as if the media were blaming him for the collapse.
But that was unfair because, even in defeat, Jackson played well. His team collapsed around him for reasons difficult to identify. But it’s true that if the Heisman voting had been conducted after the national title game instead of early December, Watson almost assuredly would have won it.
The last time the ESPN GameDay crew came to town was this time last season, and the Cards responded with perhaps the best performance in school history, humiliating mighty Florida State. I don’t expect Mr. Deja Vu to make a return visit Saturday. But I do see the Cards stunning the defending national champs with an 11-point victory. Dabo wasn’t just whistling “Dixie” when he said that UofL is “crazy good.”
I feel strongly enough to bet a $2 bill on it. When the cannon stops thundering late Saturday night, I foresee a scoreboard that says UofL 35, Clemson 24. Over to you, Coach Corso.
Billy Reed is a longtime sportswriter who contributes regular columns to WAVE3.com.
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