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Clemson still has a tough defense, and it just cleared its biggest ACC road hurdle

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Meanwhile, 0-3 Louisville is a few breaks from 3-0, but has to recalibrate its season goals anyway.

Only two official conference games have been played in the ACC, so it's not like No. 11 Clemson's 20-17 win over Louisville on Thursday night finalized the conference race. We will still see upsets, injuries, funks and surges that play a larger role than one night at Papa John's Stadium.

Still, this was a significant result. This was only the season's second matchup of any two teams that I'd ranked in the top tier of a single conference, the first in a power conference. (AAC heavyweights Cincinnati and Temple played last week.) It sets up a pretty clear path for Clemson, and it sends Louisville into a bit of a crisis.

Clemson's odds of winning the ACC just improved, perhaps dramatically.

Clemson gets Georgia Tech and Florida State at home, and the Tigers' toughest remaining conference road games are back-to-back late-October trips to Miami and NC State. If they win out at home and split those two, they will most likely win the ACC Atlantic.

As sloppy as Thursday night's win was, Clemson has proved a lot so far. The Tigers entered with major question marks after losing four of five starters on the offensive line and six of their top seven on the defensive line. The front five on offense still have work to do -- they got quarterback Deshaun Watson hit quite a bit last night, and his throwing form seemed to suffer -- but a) sophomore running back Wayne Gallman (24 carries, 139 yards, no negative carries) is proving capable of creating big yards out of small creases, and b) the defense has been excellent.

Louisville entered averaging 5.3 yards per play and averaged only 4.3 against the Tigers. Two Kyle Bolin passes gained 92 yards, and the other 61 Louisville snaps gained only 180. And despite so many replacements, Clemson's tackles for loss average has thus far sunk only from 10.1 to 9.3. The Tigers had seven, plus five passes defensed, in Louisville.

The Cardinals had two late chances to tie or win, but in his last eight pass attempts, Bolin completed 3 of 6 passes with two sacks and an interception.

A clear path is not the same as an easy path. The Clemson offense is still a work in progress, especially without injured receiver Mike Williams, and any path that includes going 2-0 against FSU and Georgia Tech is a challenging one.

Louisville: best 0-3 team in the country.

We'll know by September 18

This is a tricky schedule for a team breaking in unfamiliar pieces. Louisville faces only three teams projected to rank better than 38th, but two come in the first 13 days. The Cardinals head to the Georgia Dome to face Auburn, then welcome Clemson to Papa John's Stadium. In between: a tricky visit from an unscoutable Houston that has a new head coach.

If Louisville's 2-1 when Samford comes to town, the Cardinals are going to do some damage. No matter what, they should be good enough to take advantage of a weak final two months, but the first three weeks will set the goals -- a nine-win season vs. a conference title run and a major bowl bid.

-- 2015 Louisville preview, June 23

It's September 18 and Louisville isn't 2-1. But damn, have the Cardinals been close. They have lost three games by a combined 13 points. Upset bids against Auburn and Clemson came up just short, and in between, an upstart Houston was able to pull a 34-31 upset of its own.

The Louisville defense has held three opponents below what will likely end up being their per-play averages for the season. Keeping Auburn at 5.3 yards per play and Houston to 5 will likely end up looking excellent, and while the Cardinals couldn't slow Gallman down early, 5.7 is still respectable against Clemson.

The problem has been on the other side, where Bobby Petrino can't hone in on a steady set of personnel. Three different quarterbacks -- two sophomores (Kyle Bolin, Reggie Bonnafon) and a freshman (Lamar Jackson) -- have played with minimal effect. Jackson has shown lovely mobility, and Bolin had some decent moments against Clemson, but the three have combined for a 57 percent completion rate, five interceptions and a paltry 109 passer rating. The four leading receivers are all freshmen, thanks to veteran James Quick's ankle injury, and junior running back Brandon Radcliff (3.6 yards per carry) hasn't been able to pick up the slack.

That's the bad news. The good news is that the schedule lets up ... at least a little bit. The next seven games include home games against Samford, Syracuse, Virginia and Boston College and a visit to Wake Forest. There's nothing easy about trips to NC State and FSU, but the odds of the Cardinals getting to at least 5-5 by mid-November are decent.

Still, last night was a massive missed opportunity. The Cardinals had multiple chances and might have gone to overtime if not for a missed 38-yard field goal by one of the team's only steady veterans, senior kicker John Wallace.

As flawed as the Cardinals' offense is, a win would have maintained their presence in the ACC race, with a potential 6-1 start in conference play. For now, those hopes are off the table.

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