Week 1 in college football is much more about learning than predicting.
The No. 9 Clemson Tigers certainly fall into that category when they take on the Duke Blue Devils on Monday at 8 p.m.
The only goals Dabo Swinney has are breaking in a new offense, getting his young players experience and, of course, winning the football game.
Clemson covering the 13-point spread is the furthest thing from his mind. Fans like to judge their team on whether or not they keep it above or below the sports betting number, but that might not be the best way to evaluate anybody in the first game.
Breaking down the Tigers
Clemson will showcase a new offense led by coordinator Garrett Riley, who helped lead TCU to the College Football Playoff last year. The Tigers return one of the best running back duos in the country with Will Shipley and Phil Mafah, and they’ve already named the system “Dirt Raid.” Expect plenty of rushing, even if Duke stacks the box. The question will be can Clemson eventually back Mike Elko’s defense off with a couple of big plays from sophomore QB Cade Klubnik in his second career start and an unproven receiving corps. If Clemson does create in the passing game, that could be the key to covering the spread.
The defense brings back one of the best middle of the fields in college football behind Ruke Orhorohoro and Tyler Davis at defensive tackle, All-American linebacker candidates Jeremiah Trotter Jr. and Barrett Carter, and veterans Jalyn Phillips, Andrew Mukuba and R.J. Mickens at safety. The Tigers will need to get something out of the their defensive ends. Xavier Thomas is the only returning edge rusher with a career sack.
How much this talented unit dominates could determine if the total of 55 points, which had dropped a half-poinnt, goes under.
Breaking down the Blue Devils
The Tigers are facing a Duke team that brings back a ton of experience from a 9-win team in 2022. Riley Leonard is one of the most exciting quarterbacks in the ACC and is a true duel-threat Blue Devil. He threw for nearly 3,000 yards and rushed for nearly 700 last year, scoring 13 touchdowns on the ground alone.
He’ll be difficult to contain if Clemson lets him get out of the pocket. That will be a point of emphasis with those defensive linemen.
Duke has undersized but speedy receivers that will test Clemson in space, and the Blue Devils will use a lot of misdirection and eye candy to try and catch the defense off guard.
The Blue Devil defense features a formiable defensive front, led by preseason All-ACC tackle DeWayne Carter. Keeping bodies on him is key to opening up running lanes for the Tigers. The secondary underperformed last season, but Elko has added depth and developed a few parts that Duke believes will lead to improved play.
The line opened around Clemson -12 early in the summer and did get up to 13.5 before coming back down to 12.5 early in the week. It’s currently at -13 at BetOnline.
There isn’t much to go on here that would lead bettors to a solid conclusion one way or the other. These two teams have only met four times since 2007. Clemson has won all four straight-up and covered three times. The last meeting, a 35-6 Tiger win, just missed the number of -29.5 points by the hook.
Clemson is 5-5 against the spread in its last 10 season openers and 8-6 in the Swinney era. The Tigers have opened against ACC foes in three of the last four seasons, going 2-1 ATS against them.
What will Duke’s defense give to the Tigers? You have to think it’ll be opportunities in the passing game. They’ll challenge those receivers to get separation and win one-on-one matchups. Nobody knows right now if they can, and Klubnik showed great ability against UNC and then struggled against Tennessee in the bowl game, so you don’t know what you’re going to get there.
Riley is the reason to back the Tigers as his system and ability are renowned throughout college football.
But will it all come together in Week 1? Odds are against it. Openers are wonky. Duke is experienced. Back the home underdog to cover, but Clemson will win the game.
Best Bet: Under 55.5 is the better play as both sides would be fine with a low-scoring affair.
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