Big games don't faze Clemson coach Dabo Swinney. In fact, he relishes meetings like the one his third-ranked Tigers face Saturday when they open Atlantic Coast Conference play at No. 14 Louisville.
Kickoff time is 8 p.m. ET for the a nationally televised (ABC) clash of Atlantic Division contenders at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium.
"Louisville is an outstanding team and that's a difficult place to play," Swinney said. "But it's exciting and is going to be a lot of fun. To me, that's what you come to Clemson for -- to be part of games like this in great environments.
"We're looking forward to it. This is a fun game to prepare for because you just know that every play is so critical."
Each of the three previous games between the teams has been decided by six points or less and gone down to the final play. Clemson has won them all.
"We've had some incredible battles with them," Swinney said, "and don't expect this one to be any different."
Louisville coach Bobby Petrino agrees but is hoping for a different outcome.
"We've had three really good battles with them, had our opportunities and come up short," Petrino said. "This is something that is real important to our players -- that first of all we should have confidence that we're there and we can play -- but it is up to us to find a way to win the game."
The key for Clemson will be containing Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner. Jackson has been impressive in early wins against Purdue and North Carolina, producing 505 yards total offense per game, including 385.5 yards passing.
Last Saturday, Jackson became only the second player in FBS history to have at least 300 yards passing and 100 yards rushing in consecutive games in a 47-35 win at North Carolina. Jackson's 525 yards of total offense were the most ever allowed by the Tar Heels.
"He's a great player," Petrino said. "You're watching him the other day and you're like, 'Wow, this guy's pretty good,' throwing all over the place, running for touchdowns.
"The best play I liked was when they brought a corner off the edge, we mis-blocked it, and he stepped up, kept two hands on the ball, reset his feet and threw a strike for a 75-yard touchdown."
That ability is precisely what concerns Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables.
"It's one thing to be able to take what's there," Venables said, "but he can make something out of nothing all day."
In Louisville's 42-36 loss last year at Clemson, Jackson almost single-handedly lifted his team to victory, totaling 457 yards and accounting for four touchdowns in a game that wasn't decided until Louisville came up one yard shy of a first down at the Clemson 3-yard line in the final seconds.
"When he gets to running around, he's a handful and we saw that last year up close," Swinney said. "He's going to make his plays -- that's going to happen -- but we've got to minimize them and do a great job of taking good angles, and when we get our hands on him hang on and tackle.
"He's fun to watch, but he's not fun to prepare for, he's not fun to play against. He makes a lot of people look bad."
Louisville has plenty of other offensive weapons, including wide receiver Jaylen Smith, who ranks among the national leaders with 17 catches for 300 yards and has helped the Cardinals rank fifth in the country in total offense at 614.5 yards per game.
"Offensively, they're crazy good," Swinney said. "It's video (game) numbers. It's unbelievable."
But Clemson's defense isn't bad, either, which should provide for some riveting in-game moments.
The Tigers' defensive front, anchored by All-America candidates Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence at tackle and Austin Bryant and Clelin Ferrell at end, may be the best in the country. Clemson had 11 sacks, one shy of the school record, against Auburn last weekend.
The Tigers rank second nationally in total defense and sacks and are in the Top 10 in seven defensive categories. Clemson has not allowed a touchdown this season and held Auburn to 15 yards in the second half.
"We have more pieces on defense, more functional guys," Swinney said. "We're creating some depth. After two games, I like where we are."
FIVE DRAFT-ELIGIBLE PROSPECTS TO WATCH
The Clemson-Louisville matchup is filled with top pro prospects. Dane Brugler of NFLDraftScout.com examines five of the best:
QB Lamar Jackson, Louisville, Jr. -- When debating the top quarterback prospects for the 2018 NFL Draft, the "big three" of Sam Darnold, Josh Allen and Josh Rosen command the discussion. Meanwhile, Jackson continues to impress with his legs, arm and playmaking skills and there is no doubt that he belongs in any conversation about the top quarterbacks for next April. Against two poor defenses, Jackson is averaging 385.5 passing yards and 119.5 rushing yards per game with eight total touchdowns. However, Clemson will provide much more of a test with one of the best front-seven units in college football. Pro scouts will be locked onto his performance to see his development, especially as a passer, against a defense filled with NFL talent.
DT Christian Wilkins, Clemson, Jr. -- One of the top interior defensive line prospects in the nation, Wilkins moves differently than most 300-plus pounders, using the flexibility in his hips and joints to stay balanced while contorting his frame when working off blocks. He also flashes the violence in his hands to deliver power at contact and create conflict between the tackles. Like last season, the Louisville offensive line has collectively been inconsistent through two games, largely due to inexperience. And that spells trouble with Clemson's talented defensive front coming to town, including the nation's best interior defensive tackle tandem with Wilkins and true sophomore Dexter Lawrence, who projects as a top prospect for the 2019 NFL Draft.
DE Clellin Ferrell, Clemson, So. -- Two years ago, Clemson had impressive bookends at defensive end with Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd, but the current duo of Ferrell and junior Austin Bryant could prove to be even better. Ferrell, who started all 15 games as a freshman last season, doesn't have the first step quickness of a Harold Landry-type prospect, but he does a great job timing up the snap with strong rip moves once he gains leverage on the tackle. His motor never stalls, also incorporating an effective spin move to also threaten inside rush lanes. Lining up primarily at right defensive end for the Tigers, Ferrell will face Louisville's best offensive lineman: junior left tackle Geron Christian.
DE James Hearns, Louisville, Sr. -- Louisville's best pass rush prospect is redshirt senior end Trevon Young, but Hearns has NFL potential as well. And lining up primarily at right defensive end, he'll be tested in this match-up against Clemson junior left tackle Mitch Hyatt. Hearns, who is still searching for his first sack of the season, doesn't have the same bend or first step quickness as Young, but he has enough athleticism to threaten the corner. His motor and never-ending fight to the quarterback also stand out, emptying the chamber of his pass rush repertoire throughout the game. Hyatt is very assignment sound at left tackle, but he lacks ideal length and gives up his chest, leaving him vulnerable.
WR Jaylen Smith, Louisville, Jr. -- With James Quick, Jamari Staples and Cole Hikutini off to the NFL, Jackson and the Louisville offense have been missing the top-three receiving options from last season. But Smith has stepped up as the No. 1 target for the Cardinals this season, posting 17 receptions for 300 yards and one touchdown in two games. He is a big-bodied target with a large catch radius to extend and pull the ball out of the clouds or pick it off his shoelaces with his fingertips, although he will lose focus at times in congestion. Smith won't win many foot races vs. cornerbacks, but he does an excellent job plucking and turning upfield with power, transitioning quickly and efficiently from a pass-catcher to a ball-carrier