CLEMSON — Louisville is a laughingstock no more.

The team Clemson plays on the road Saturday is not the same one the Tigers beat up on last year 77-16. No, Louisville, under new coach Scott Satterfield, is one of the ACC's biggest surprises, a status that was solidified with last week's 62-59 win at then-No. 19 Wake Forest.

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has taken notice.

"They were a team in disarray last year," Swinney said. "It's polar opposite. They've got them playing with incredible belief. Effort is tremendous."

The Cardinals will certainly need belief and effort in challenging Clemson, which has won 21 games in a row. Still, there is some doubt surrounding the Tigers, who have fallen to No. 3 in the AP Top 25 poll after starting No. 1.

Clemson's 45-14 win over Florida State last week didn't do much to quiet some doubters, who have decried the Tigers' schedule as too weak. Satterfield isn't buying the narrative.

"It’s unbelievable that people want to write a story about this isn’t the Clemson we are used to. What?" Satterfield said. “They are coached well, they expect to win and have a lot of talent.” 

Swinney aims to harness that talent into his team's seventh straight win to start the season Saturday. Here are four keys that can help the Tigers do just that.

Protect Trevor Lawrence

The Clemson offensive line has allowed just four sacks all season, tied for the third fewest in the nation, and provided quarterback Trevor Lawrence with ample time in the pocket. The Tigers, in turn, lead the ACC in average points per game (42.8).

The production hasn't been up to the standards of some critics, though. Clemson's offense reached a nadir in the team's 21-20 Week 5 win at North Carolina, and Louisville will look to replicate the Tar Heels' showing. 

The Cardinals did allow Wake Forest to put 59 points on the board last week, so it will likely take some reshuffling to combat Lawrence, running back Travis Etienne and the rest of the Tigers' weapons. 

Offensive co-coordinator/running backs coach Tony Elliott said it will be key going forward to get Etienne the ball more.

"I got to do a good job in certain situations of taking the RPO off and just calling it where it's a designed run, regardless of what the defense is," Elliott said. "Just to force Travis. Because if you get Travis the ball, he's going to break a tackle or two. It doesn't have to be perfect. And then, taking a little stress off of Trevor, too."

Keep Louisville's playmakers in check

Louisville's wide receiver corps has been dangerous the past two weeks. 

First, against Boston College, senior Seth Dawkins recorded six catches for 170 yards and one touchdown. Sophomore Tutu Atwell had eight catches for 110 yards in that game, then followed up that performance with seven catches for 85 yards and one touchdown against Wake Forest.

Redshirt junior Dez Fitzpatrick has recorded five catches for 108 yards and one touchdown, and five catches for 125 yards and two touchdowns, in the respective games. 

The Clemson defense is full of playmakers, though, with the Tigers leading the ACC in interceptions (eight). Three of those came last week, including cornerback Derion Kendrick's 38-yard touchdown return.

Swinney's team has forced 12 turnovers this season, and winning the turnover battle Saturday could go a long way.

Be the aggressors early

Louisville has started its past two games with energy and gotten out to early leads. It's imperative for the Tigers to be the aggressors from the onset Saturday, especially on the road. 

Swinney on Wednesday spoke to the Cardinals' mental stamina.

"This is a team that's not going to quit," Swinney said. "We might be up 21-0, I don't care. They won't quit. This is a team that you're going to have to go out there and win the game."

Clemson has scored first in four of its six games this season, with the two exceptions being Week 2 against Texas A&M and Week 5 at North Carolina.

Avoid mental mistakes

It's always key for teams to avoid mental errors, but there's even more emphasis on this point for Clemson this week given the game's stakes. Louisville enters with momentum, after two big wins, and is hungry for a season-defining upset. A defeat for Clemson could end the Tigers' College Football Playoff hopes. 

The crowd will be loud, but Clemson players can't let the environment get to them. The Tigers have been called for a total of 13 penalties for 98 yards over the past two weeks. They'll need to shore things up Saturday. 


Clemson 38, Louisville 21

Follow Joshua Needelman on Twitter at @joshneedelman.

Joshua Needelman covers Clemson for The Post and Courier. He's a Long Island, N.Y., native and a University of Maryland graduate.

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