ACC Countdown: No. 6 Louisville
JUL 30, 2014 2:42p ET
Louisville has been on the rise for the last 10-15 years, perhaps more so than any other program in college football.
Now, the Cardinals (23-3 record in the last two seasons) leave the AAC to finally join the ACC, a conference that, while it's not one of the most well-regarded among the Power 5, stands in better shape than the now-defunct Big East.
Louisville will have more change headed into this season, as it welcomes back former head coach Bobby Petrino -- and his brilliant offensive mind -- after Charlie Strong left to be the head man at Texas.
Will the Cardinals be able to prove their worth in a division that includes Clemson and Florida State?
Perhaps Louisville's highest-profile returner is DeVante Parker, one of the ACC's best wide receivers.
He caught 55 passes for 885 yards a season ago, and he's joined in the receiving corps by fellow senior Eli Rogers, who was Louisville's third-leading receiver last season (44 catches for 536 yards).
Add in the intriguing tight end Gerald Christian, and you have a lot of weapons that are proven pass-catchers for Louisville.
Add in Dominique Brown at running back, last year's leading rusher (825 yards and eight TDs) with former Auburn tailback Michael Dyer, and that's a pretty good group of skill-position players.
Add that in with an experienced offensive line (all five starters are back) and Petrino couldn't have asked for a better collection of weapons.
On defense, defensive end/linebacker hybrid Lorenzo Mauldin is back, and he's one of the better players in the ACC. Mauldin was second on the team last year in sacks (9.5), and he should be absolutely terrifying playing that hybrid-type role in a 3-4 with his athleticism and size.
In the secondary, both starting quarterbacks return (Charles Gaines and Terell Floyd) to bolster a unit that was very good last year. Gaines, in particular, is excellent -- he had five interceptions, seven pass breakups and 12 passes defended last year.
Louisville loses plenty of talent off that defense, but the linebackers and secondary return more than enough to make up for it.
WHO'S GONE/WHO'S NEXT?
Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who -- due to Louisville taking a loss in October, thus taking them out of a national-title conversation -- perhaps got a little overlooked in his final season.
He completed a very high percentage of his passes, rarely made mistakes and could be downright dynamic at times, even as the Cardinals probably played it a bit more conservatively than they had to on offense. That certainly won't be the case this year as sophomore Will Gardner takes his place with Petrino at the helm.
The sophomore quarterback was 32 of 37 for 542 yards and four touchdowns in the spring game, for what it's worth. But it could be a sign of things to come.
Louisville returns a lot of weapons on offense, and Gardner could really benefit from that. Plus, Petrino. Last year's leading receiver (Damian Copeland) and second-leading rusher (Senorise Perry) are both gone as well, but as previously discussed, there are plenty of options to pick up the slack.
The defense is where the concern lies. Linebacker Preston Brown graduated, and he led the team in tackles. But Louisville has some depth and talent there.
Louisville loses two excellent safeties in Calvin Pryor and Hakeem Smith, but two juniors poised to take their place (Jermaine Reve and Gerod Holliman) played quite a few snaps last year and should be ready to go.
Three of Louisville's four starting defensive linemen last year are gone, led by standout end Marcus Smith. Who's next there is anyone's guess. Mauldin will be a beast in a hybrid linebacker/end role, and that could replace some of the production lost.
But everyone else along the actual line has to be at least capable. End Sheldon Rankins is just about the only sure thing, and even he played in just 10 games last year and finished with three sacks. There's plenty of competition at the other end spot, and the real issue will be finding a good nose tackle, which is key to any 3-4.
Both options there -- redshirt sophomore DeAngelo Brown and redshirt freshman Johnny Richardson -- are virtually unknown commodities.
The defense. It's a group that lost seven starters, and it figures to take a significant step backwards. That's not a slight to this year's team, but a compliment to Louisville's defense last year.
Add in the fact that Louisville is transitioning from a 4-3 to a 3-4 this season, and things could be a bit rocky, particularly early. It's almost an assumption that, considering the talent coming back on offense and Petrino's offensive mind, the offense will be just fine.
Maybe even better than fine. But as the old saying goes, on defense, it all starts up front. And Louisville has a lot of question marks up front. The secondary could be excellent, and the linebackers could be just as good, but if the defense can't stop the run or keep blockers from getting to the second level, it won't matter.
And in an Atlantic Division that includes high-powered offenses like Florida State and Clemson, not to mention an ACC schedule that includes other high-powered offenses like Miami and even a run-heavy team like Syracuse, that's going to be a problem if the line doesn't come together.
The secondary and linebackers can only be as good as the front allows them to be, and former Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham had better hope the players adapt to the scheme change quickly, and that some of the unproven players at various positions live up to their potential.
If Louisville's offense is as good as expected, the defense will only need to be average for the Cardinals to get to 8-9 wins. If they're a disaster on defense, that could cost 'em a game or two.
THE SEASON WILL BE A SUCCESS IF ...
Well, Florida State is in the Atlantic Division, so while winning the Atlantic Division would qualify as a success, that's almost certainly not in the cards. (No pun intended.)
Even finishing second behind a very good Clemson team seems like too tall an order. And so really, the best Louisville can hope for is to acquit itself well in its first year in the league.
Louisville has been aching for respect as a program for so long, wanting to prove it can play with the "big boys" consistently. Many other ACC teams have shown us over the years -- even some good teams -- it's not enough to be good.
You have to beat the teams you're supposed to beat, a task that is seemingly easier said than done.
Do that, though, and it will be a success. Throw in Petrino giving the fans a taste of what they'd been missing from an offense that should be high-powered ... and you have a successful season.
GAME TO CIRCLE ON SCHEDULE
Oct. 3 at Syracuse
In theory, Louisville could be 5-0 at that point. But after a date with Syracuse, L'ville goes to Clemson, hosts NC State and Florida State, then goes to BC and Notre Dame, before closing the year with Kentucky at home.
That Syracuse game feels like a bit of a trap.
Clemson will tell us a lot more about what Louisville is, but at Syracuse will not be easy.
Syracuse is a mid-tier ACC team at best, but certainly better than two of Louisville's first three ACC games -- at Virginia and Wake at home.
Bottom line: The Cardinals have to take care of winnable games against opponents like that.
PREDICTION: 8-4, 5-3 ACC
Assuming the Clemson and Florida State games are both losses would be reasonable. Adding in a loss at Notre Dame, that leaves Louisville absolutely no margin for error in its other ACC games.
While the rest of its ACC slate is certainly manageable -- vs. Miami, at Virginia, vs. Wake Forest, at Syracuse, vs. NC State and at Boston College -- avoiding a slip-up is probably too much to ask.
Syracuse, Boston College and Miami are all certainly teams that could beat Louisville; and while the Cardinals still have plenty of talent on that roster, they probably aren't good enough to avoid at least one of those types of losses.
Still, in Year 1 of both the Petrino, Part II era and the first year in the ACC, the Cardinals will certainly take that.