Preseason countdown: No. 14 Louisville
Louisville finished in a three-way tie atop the Big East Conference in 2011 while using a slew of wide-eyed and inexperienced underclassmen. Now that those players are a year older, the program is looking to take another giant step forward in head coach Charlie Strong’s third season on campus.
Strong has revived Louisville the old-fashioned way, amassing a war chest of talented newcomers, and coaching up the kids he inherited from predecessor Steve Kragthorpe. The coach is winning plenty of recruiting battles in his old stomping ground of Florida, luring blue-chippers from the Sunshine State to the Commonwealth of Kentucky. The Cardinals are better in so many different ways, from the kinds that can be seen on Saturdays to the ones that’ll never show up in a box score.
Strong has methodically retooled his program to the brink of where Bobby Petrino had it a few years ago, when league titles were a realistic goal. His defense is stout, and about to get increasingly tougher as recent heralded recruits get slowly weaved into the equation. And the offense, a stumbling block the last two seasons, is percolating now that burgeoning QB Teddy Bridgewater and his top three receivers are no longer rookies.
Yeah, there are holes on the two-deep, but there are markedly fewer than when this staff was put together in early 2010.
After appearing in back-to-back middling postseason games, might a BCS bowl invitation be next on the horizon for the Cards? It’s not as far-fetched as it might seem. Heck, not only is Louisville in the midst of an impressive revitalization, but the other two schools that earned a share of the 2011 Big East crown, Cincinnati and West Virginia, won’t be nearly as threatening in 2012. The Bearcats are rebuilding, and the Mountaineers are now in the Big 12.
Louisville is hot, and destined to become one of college football’s big stories of the upcoming season.
What to watch for on offense: The battle at running back. The passing attack is going to be better, but the ground game? The Cardinals desperately want to run the ball with more success than in 2011, when they ranked 93rd nationally, but first need to decide on a go-to guy. Coordinator Shawn Watson does not favor a committee approach, yet four backs, Dominique Brown, Jeremy Wright, Senorise Perry and Corvin Lamb, were listed as co-starters at the end of spring drills. The coach is hoping that someone will rise up and take control of the job this summer.
What to watch for on defense: A turnaround from the pass defense. After stumbling in 2011, the Cardinals defensive backfield is prepared to stiffen this fall. There’s a nice blend of all-star veterans, S Hakeem Smith and CB Adrian Bushell, and future stars, such as S Calvin Pryor and CB Andrew Johnson, to suggest that this could be a surprisingly stingy unit in 2012. The coaches are cautiously optimistic, which also means that the defensive backs will benefit from getting their undivided attention throughout the summer.
The team will be far better if: The offense starts to carry more of the weight. It’s no secret that the program won 14 games over the last two seasons in large part because of the play of the defense. Or that a lot more will be expected from QB Teddy Bridgewater and the offense. The attack ranked 103rd nationally and averaged only 21 points, regressions from the previous year. No one is asking for shades of 2006, Brian Brohm’s junior year, but a more potent offense could carry this program to new heights under Charlie Strong.
The schedule: The Cardinals have a season of streaks to work through starting with three home games followed up by three road games and followed up by three more home games. So can they get through that midsection of FIU, Southern Miss, and Pitt on the road? If so, then this could be a special season with a relatively light non-conference schedule - with the toughest games against Kentucky and North Carolina - and with four conference road dates in five games. However, the slate closes out with two road games in the final three, including a key date with Rutgers to close things out five days after hosting Connecticut.
Best offensive player: Sophomore QB Bridgewater. This placement is based in part on what Bridgewater achieved as a true freshman and partly what he’s expected to do in 2012 and beyond. The 6-foot-3, 207-pounder took advantage of an injury last September and never relinquished the job, completing 191-of-296 passes for 2,129 yards, 14 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Showcasing a neat package of physical ability and the desired intangibles at the position, he has looked like a budding star throughout the offseason.
Best defensive player: Junior SS Smith. Just two years into his college career, Smith is already one of the veteran leaders of the defense. He has started all but one game since moving into the lineup in 2010, earning All-Big East honors at the conclusion of both seasons. At 6-1 and 180 pounds, he has the build and agility of a cornerback, yet is tenacious in run defense. Last season, the junior made 84 tackles and team-highs with nine pass breakups and three forced fumbles.
Key player to a successful season: Sophomore RT Jamon Brown. With four starters returning, including fixture Mario Benavides at center, Louisville should be improved in the trenches. Brown is going to be the unit’s biggest question mark … literally. The 6-4, 340-pound one-time defensive tackle has made a successful transition since moving over to offense last fall. However, he’s going to have a whole new level of responsibility in 2012, attempting to do his part for a team that ranked 110th nationally in sacks allowed last year.
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The season will be a success if: The Cardinals win the Big East. OK, so maybe it’s not fair to heap such lofty expectations on such a young team, but the opportunity is sitting out there for the Cards. And Louisville is going to be improved, especially on offense, from the team that copped a share of the league crown in 2011. As it stands now, the program might be an underdog in just two or three games all season, so if it can mature in a hurry, a nine-win campaign for the first time since 2006 should be in the crosshairs.
Key game: Oct. 26 vs. Cincinnati. The annual meeting between these two border rivals is for the Keg of Nails. This October, it could be for a keg of cash. The Bearcats are going to be one of the main hurdles standing between Louisville and a spot in one of the five BCS bowl games. Oh, the matchup will also be a nationally-televised Friday night affair, affording Strong the opportunity to showcase his program’s recent progress to a larger than normal audience.