Sept. 21 NCAA Football Picks and Preview — Charlotte (2-1) at No. 1 Clemson (3-0)

(Travis Etienne photo courtesy Joshua S. Kelly/USA TODAY Sports)

This is the full preview(s) as seen on the Winners and Whiners and Stat Salt websites. The confidence rating for all picks on a scale from 1 to 5 is in parentheses.

Note: The 5/5 does NOT represent the best overall pick of the day’s games when there are multiple games, simply the best pick(s) from each individual game.

When and Where: Saturday, Sept. 21, Memorial Stadium, Clemson, S.C., 7:30 p.m. EDT.

It looks to be a million-dollar win-win for top-ranked Clemson and Charlotte on Saturday.

The defending College Football Playoff champion gets what should be little more than a glorified tuneup ahead of the meat of its ACC schedule and the seventh-year FBS school gets a payday that helps fund the entire athletic department.

The top-ranked Tigers (3-0) unleashed two years of catharsis of close games against Syracuse by walloping the Orange 41-6 at the Carrier Dome last Saturday. Trevor Lawrence, who was knocked out of last season’s 27-23 win after a blow to the head, threw for 395 yards and three touchdowns as Clemson rolled up 612 yards and total offense and limited Syracuse to a pair of field goals and 187 yards.

Not including CFP games and conference title games, the Tigers have won 20 consecutive non-conference contests. Clemson also carries an 18-game winning streak into this matchup and has reeled off 19 straight non-conference home wins.

The 49ers (2-1) are taking a huge step up in caliber of competition but have showcased an impressive offense under first-year coach Will Healy in averaging 47.3 points in their first three games. Charlotte throttled UMass 52-17 last Saturday, scoring the first 28 points of the game and clearing 50 points for the first time since November 2014.

Benny LeMay and Aaron McAllister combined for 207 rushing yards, with Lemay totaling a team-high 113 and McAllister ripping off a 69-yard scoring run. Chris Reynolds threw for 155 yards and a pair of touchdowns as the 49ers rang up 533 yards of total offense.

Charlotte is facing a ranked opponent for just the third time in school history, and if the first two are any indication, it could be a long day. The 49ers absorbed losses at Louisville and Kansas State by a combined 125-21 in games played in 2016-17.

49ers dreaming big for showdown

Say this much for the 49ers heading into this contest — they are not afraid to dream of big things. Coming off arguably the biggest offensive performance in school history — Charlotte set records for points and margin of victory over an FBS opponent — LeMay was blunt in answering the question of whether the nearly six-touchdown underdogs can pull off the impossible.

“We expect to go in and compete, like we do week in and week out,” LeMay told the Charlotte Observer. “I don’t really dictate who we play. They put on their pads just like us. They’re human beings. I’m not really looking at them like they’re the New England Patriots. But I definitely give them the respect. They’re the No. 1 team in the country.”

Any chance the 49ers have of staying close, let alone taming the Tigers, revolves around the senior running back. LeMay is averaging 7.6 yards per carry and has rushed for 100 or more yards in five straight games dating back to last season.

LeMay’s two highest rushing totals in his career have come on the road, including a career-best 188-yard effort at Florida Atlantic last season. Charlotte ranks seventh in the nation in rushing with 296.7 yards per game while averaging 7.1 yards per carry. LeMay is not the only back capable toting the rock as redshirt freshman Ishod Finger has chipped in 215 yards while getting 8.6 yards per carry.

Charlotte’s run defense, however, is where things could go all sideways. The 49ers have yielded 190 yards per game on the ground and at least 135 in all three games as teams have quickly figured out not to test them through the air all that much. Charlotte is fifth in the country with 4.33 sacks per game and in passing yards allowed (123.0).

“We want to shock the world,” safety Jacione Fugate added. “We’re not playing small. We want to play big. We want to take this program somewhere it’s never been. We’re not going to lay down for nobody. We will never do that. I don’t care how weak we used to be. It’s not the program we are now. Things have changed.”

Swinney refusing to sleep on 49ers

Despite the enormous point spread and obvious discrepancies in talent levels, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has spent the week pumping up Charlotte to his players to make sure they take the 49ers seriously. While it has not taken on the Lou Holtz-level hyperbole he made famous while coach at Notre Dame, Swinney does see an offense that could pose interesting challenges for his defense while singling out LeMay for praise.

“This is the best rushing team we’ve seen in three games. Their ability to run the ball and how they’re coordinated to run the ball. Their running back is a tough, thick, physical runner,” Swinney said at his weekly media availability. “This is a team that could embarrass us if we don’t have a great week of preparation, because they’re a different type of challenge than we’ve seen.”

Swinney also continued his Lou Holtz-like prais of the 49ers.

“This is a team offensively that is going to challenge us. Very impressed watching them on tape,” Swinney said. “This is the most explosive team we have played to this point.

But he’s not joking about their offense.

“Biggest thing I’m impressed with is how well-coached they are. Schematically, this is probably the biggest challenge for our defense this season so far in what they do structurally,” Swinney said. “Multiple personnel, multiple formations, create a lot of challenges alignment-wise and communication-wise.”

Clemson’s defense, however, did do a solid job in limiting Syracuse rushers Abdul Adams and Moe Neal from getting any momentum as the duo totaled 56 yards on 23 carries. The Tigers have held opponents to 75.0 rushing yards per game, with 157 of those coming against a Georgia Tech team transitioning away from the option attack that had been a staple of their offense under previous coach Paul Johnson.

While Swinney talks up Charlotte’s offense, his team has its own well-stocked offense with Lawrence and Etienne. One interesting aspect of Lawrence’s growth is that he has already thrown more interceptions this season (5) in 97 attempts after throwing four in 259 all of 2018.

Swinney noted that those picks have been a two-way street with Lawrence’s receivers and believes Clemson’s offense needs to be more efficient in addition to being capable of big plays at any moment.

“The interceptions are not all on (Trevor Lawrence), first of all. We’ve had a couple on the wide outs, two exactly, where Trevor did his job exactly how he was supposed to and the wide out didn’t.

“He’s had a couple bad plays too. Just don’t try to do too much. He’s an incredibly confident player smart. Sometimes that can work against you, because you want to do too many things. Just stay within the system and learn from it, and he’ll be fine.”

Etienne is averaging 8.0 yards per carry and has 334 yards despite not carrying the ball more than 16 times in any game this season. The junior is 242 yards shy of 3,000 for his career and has totaled 571 yards and eight TDs in six non-conference home games.

Notable Trends

Clemson is:

  • 7-1 ATS in its last eight games after scoring 40 or more points in its previous game.
  • 8-2 ATS in its last 10 games following a straight up win by 20 or more points.
  • 6-2 ATS in its last eight games following an ATS win.

Charlotte is:

  • 5-12 ATS in its last 17 non-conference games.

*****5-Star Pick*****

OVER 62 points (-110)

Clemson has already had two games of 600 or more yards, but only one game with more than 50 points. Clemson has averaged 251 rushing yards in its first three games, and Etienne always is on the verge of breaking off a long gain. The feeling is the Tigers clear both 600 yards and 50 points, and the touchdown or perhaps 10 points the 49ers contribute will help the over hit comfortably.

****4-Star Picks****

Clemson Win/OVER 62 double (-145)

A confidence pick in the Tigers rolling up the points to cover easily and do most of the heavy lifting to get to the number. Clemson has averaged 47.75 points in its last eight non-conference home games versus non-Power 5 conference opponents, and Charlotte has allowed 48 or more points in eight of their 19 all-time non-conference away games since 2013.

OVER 34.5 points 1st half (-115)

A low-side hook on a touchdown total is worth an aggressive play given Charlotte’s shaky defense, especially on the ground where Etienne can break off a big play at any moment. And anything Charlotte provides offensively would make clearing the number that much easier.

***3-Star Picks***

Clemson -41.5 (-115)

Swinney’s grandstanding notwithstanding, Clemson should tear through Charlotte’s defense at will in this game. Etienne should have a monstrous effort that should give him some love and attention from Heisman voters, while Lawrence goes about his business efficiently. It may take a little bit of extra effort if Charlotte’s offense is as good as Swinney thinks it is and LeMay claims, but the Tigers are going to score plenty of points.

Clemson -26 1st half (-115)

Four touchdowns is a large number to cover, but one gets the sense the Tigers are just going to collectively exhale in this game and run through their gears to blow out the 49ers. Clemson has already led one home game by 28 at halftime and should do so again in this one.

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