LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) Louisville's success under coach Bobby Petrino has changed the way players are thinking – from merely competing in the Atlantic Coast Conference to winning championships.
A key part of realizing that lofty dream is getting past Atlantic Division heavyweights Clemson and Florida State.
Louisville hopes to carry momentum from last season's 8-2 closing stretch into serious pursuit of a division title in Petrino's third season. Fueling those expectations is the offensive stability behind mobile sophomore quarterback Lamar Jackson, an experienced line and an impressive receiver corps.
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The Cardinals could use some depth on the defensive line around DeAngelo Brown but are solid at linebacker and in the secondary, strengths that might explain their lofty declarations.
''I like to set the bar high for us, for me and for the team,'' junior cornerback Trumaine Washington said. ''I know we can do it. I know I can do it. We don't have any rookies to begin. We got everybody back on offense and defense. I'm just ready to get to the national championship.''
After starting 0-3 last year, Petrino just wants to see progress.
''We're still going to have to make sure we do a great job of getting better as the year goes on,'' Petrino said. ''
Louisville's immediate priority is winning the division, which requires getting the most out of strong players on both sides of the ball.
Jackson presents a formidable dual threat after combining for 2,800 offensive yards and 23 touchdowns in a breakout freshman season. However, Petrino stops short of saying that Jackson will have free rein in the offense; he drew laughter on media day after saying, ''he has the freedom to do exactly what we tell him.''
Brown (40 tackles, two sacks) is considered a big run-stopper for Louisville, which must see if juniors Chris Williams, Drew Bailey, Johnny Richardson or Kyle Shortridge will spend more time around him. If the Cardinals' recent history of developing defensive talent means anything, they should fill those voids without missing a beat.
Said linebacker Devonte' Fields, ''we still have got to fix some communication errors, but everything else, we've been pretty solid.''
A young, inexperienced wide receiver corps last season could prove to be Louisville's deepest unit. The Cardinals return their top two pass-catchers in James Quick and Jamari Staples, while former quarterback Reggie Bonnafon is ready to show his talent and speed as a full-time receiver. Traveon Samuel and Ja'Quay Savage are emerging talents.
One of Louisville's strongest areas is in transition with the departures of reliable place kicker John Wallace and dependable punter Josh Appleby. Both positions are wide open, and Petrino is looking at Evan O'Hara, Blanton Creque, Anthony George for the kicking game. Mason King and Austin Johnson will compete for the punting job.
Louisville's Atlantic Division prospects could be determined by early October as it faces conference favorites Florida State (home, Sept. 17) and Clemson (away, Oct. 1). The Cardinals' Nov. 17 non-conference showdown at Houston offers an intriguing chance for revenge after the Cougars dealt them a rare home loss during last year's 0-3 start.SEASON OPENER
Louisville hosts Charlotte on Sept. 1. The 49ers went 3-9 in their first season in FBS with Conference USA and lost nine of their final 10.
Louisville has battled Florida State and Clemson but must to find a way to beat one or both to think about claiming the Atlantic division.
AP freelance writer Steve Bittenbender contributed to this report.
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