8:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Louisville -15, Over/Under: 69
After a wild and crazy Saturday of College Football that saw three of the Top-Four Teams fall in defeat, a pivotal matchup set before the weekend is served as the Fifth-Ranked Louisville Cardinals travel to Houston to face the once promising Cougars. Indeed, Louisville (9-1, 7-1 in ACC) couldn’t have asked for a better predicament, as complete and unbridled chaos swept through the top of the Polls; No. 2 Clemson, No. 3 Michigan, and No. 4 Washington all lost, giving Bobby Petrino’s charges an opportunity to sneak into the College Football Playoff. Unfortunately for the meantime, they’re going to have to settle for living on the fringe of the CFP for one more week, as the Selection Committee curiously left them out in favor of the Wolverines and Tigers, who currently occupy the Third and Fourth places in the rankings. However, with Clemson’s loss the Cardinals still have an outside chance of advancing to the ACC Championship Game, which would enhance their profile immensely in the eyes of the Committee. Essentially, their fate is in their hands. Of course, this conversation would have been rendered moot if not for Louisville’s furious 34-point explosion in the Fourth Quarter of Saturday’s 44-12 victory over Wake Forest. The home side muddled through the first three frames of action against the unranked Demon Deacons, actually trailing the visitors 13-10 heading into the final stanza, before running off five unanswered touchdowns en route to victory. Ironically, Heisman front-runner Lamar Jackson only accounted for ONE of those scores, a 2-yard pass to Tight End Cole Hikutini (3 catches, 26 yards, 1 TD) with four minutes left to play. The True Sophomore Quarterback struggled in the Pocket, completing just 14-of-26 passes for 145 yards and the aforementioned touchdown, but continued to give the opposition fits with his legs, rushing a team-high twenty-two times for 153 yards. The star of the contest though, was Brandon Radcliff, who in a fifteen-minute span, scored three rushing touchdowns, before totaling 141 yards on just eleven carries when it was all said and done. Saturday’s victory, was the third such close-call for this team after their narrow defeat at Clemson a month ago. Both Duke and Virginia gave the Cards fits in their respective meetings, with Petrino’s outfits winning those games by a combined seventeen points. Expect Jackson to show up in a big way tonight, as the electrifying athlete looks to rebound from a rather uninspiring performance (at least by his standards). The Quarterback has made great strides as a passer this season, completing 58.6% of his attempts for 2,898 yards, twenty-seven touchdowns and just six interceptions, while rushing for another 1,336 yards and nineteen scores, bringing his grand total to a staggering forty-six, the most by any single player in the FBS. Furthermore, he’s scored more total touchdowns than a number of TEAMS this season. Under Pertino’s tutelage, Jackson has done a great job of spreading the wealth, as four different Receivers have logged over twenty receptions and 400+ yards, with Jaylen Smith (22 catches, 487 yards, 6 TD), Jamari Stapes (34 catches, 585 yards, 2 TD), James Quick (36 catches, 606 yards, 6 TD), and the aforementioned Hikutini (38 catches, 526 yards, 6 TD) all vying for the role of benefactor from week to week. And while it’s easy to get lost in their ridiculously prolific offense (49.6 points per game, 1st Overall), we’d be remiss if we didn’t give a shout to their Defense, which has been overshadowed all season. Louisville has allowed just 20.3 points (18th Overall) this season on a sterling 285.2 Total Yards, while registering twenty-nine sacks and twenty-two takeaways. Safety Chucky Williams (75 TKL, 9.0 TFL, 2 SK, 3 INT, 3 FR), Cornerback Jaire Alexander (33 TKL, 5 INT, 7 PD, 1 FR), and Linebacker James Hearns (40 TKL, 11.0 TFL, 8.0 SK5 FF) are just a few of the names to know on this unit, which we’re sure will be on the radar of the Cougars tonight.
Meanwhile, coming into the season, Houston (8-2, 5-2 in AAC) was essentially in the same place as the team they face tonight. On the fringe of breaking into the College Football Playoff, Tom Herman’s charges bum-rushed the show in the form of their Season Opening upset of Oklahoma (33-23). From that point on it was rather simple: win out, and you’re in. Given their schedule, and the relative lack of competition in the American Athletic Conference, these guys were a shoe-in to be the first non-Power Five Conference Team to earn a spot in the Playoff. Indeed, the Cougars steamrolled through the likes of Lamar (42-0), Cincinnati (40-16), Texas State (64-3), and Connecticut (42-14) with ease, elevating themselves to No. 6 in the country, but then the inevitable potential pitfall came into view… no not in the form of tonight’s meeting with Louisville, we’re referring to Navy. That’s right, folks, the Midshipmen pulled the upset, effectively shattering Houston’s Playoff aspirations in a shockingly wild 46-40 affair. However, it didn’t stop there, for what goes up must come down. Isaac Newton jokes aside, the next few weeks were far from kind to Herman and Co. as they very nearly avoided disaster in a 38-31 victory over Tulsa, followed a 38-16 drubbing at the hands of a very average SMU. During this three-game stretch, the Offense was essentially it’s own worst enemy, committing a total of eight turnovers, placing their cohorts on the opposite side of the ball in peril, leading to an average of 415.7 yards allowed. Out of the rankings altogether, the slide very nearly continued into the most recent of weeks, with close wins over Central Florida (31-24) and Tulane (30-18) brining them to this point. Basically, this team hasn’t played good football since September, as they’ve been very sloppy on the offensive side of the ball, with injuries taking their toll on a number of key contributors. Houston went through the first five contests largely mistake-free, committing just four turnovers, while enjoying a positive differential of Plus-2, but have fallen off with fourteen turnovers committed in the five outings since, leading to a disastrous Minus-6 differential. We covered Louisville’s Lamar Jackson earlier, and now we’re going to get into Greg Ward Jr. who for all intents and purposes WAS Jackson coming into the season. The versatile Senior was targeted as a dark horse contender for the Heisman Trophy, hot off the heels of a 2015 campaign which saw him rush for 1,114 yards and score a total of thirty-seven all-purpose touchdowns. Despite torching Oklahoma for 321 yards and a pair of scores, Ward suffered a shoulder injury that would keep him out of the following week, and has unfortunately stayed with him ever since. Watching this kid perform over the last two months, it’s become readily apparent that he’s not healthy, as the shoulder has not only effected his ability to push the ball downfield, but has surprisingly negated his ability to run the football; Ward has carried the football 144 times for just 429 yards and nine touchdowns, averaging a meager 3.0 yards per carry. He’s only topped the 100-yard rushing threshold once this season, and has been relegated below fifty yards one four occasions. In fact, since racking up a season-high 142 rushing yards against Tulsa, the Senior has logged a grand total of FIFTEEN yards over the last three games, including NEGATIVE THREE yards in last week’s win over Tulane.
Predicted Outcome: Louisville 35, Houston 31