ACC Preview: Louisville QB Lamar Jackson may have date with stardom

Louisville has been steady in Bobby Petrino’s second go-round with the program, winning 17 games and making a pair of bowl games.

But is that their ceiling?

Finishing third in the Atlantic Division each of the past two seasons, what the Cardinals need is a breakthrough — and they are manned to do exactly that. Dynamic quarterback Lamar Jackson is back, one of 16 starters in all, and the defense is stacked with next-level talent.

What does 2016 hold for Petrino and Co? That lies with the answer to the following.

ACC TEAM BREAKDOWNS

Since joining the ACC, Louisville is winless against the division powers, including last year losing to the Tigers 20-17 and the Seminoles 41-21. But in order to take the next step, it’s going to mean surpassing one or both of them in the standings. Those two teams have national title aspirations, but the Cardinals may be a dark horse in that regard after winning six of their last seven games in 2015 and returning a loaded roster. But the reality of their schedule is their standing in the Atlantic could be all but set just a day into October as Louisville hosts Florida State on Sept. 17 and heads to Clemson on Oct. 1. Get through those games and there’s an intriguing trip to Houston on Nov. 17. It’s a schedule that is set up to give Louisville plenty of time to build a College Football Playoff resume, or be all but out of it heading into the second month of the season.

As Jackson admitted — and Petirno later backed up at ACC Kickoff — the QB didn’t have a firm grip on Cardinals playbook a year ago. Or, as Jackson put it "I really didn’t know any of the plays last year." He had his moments, running for 106 yards against Auburn and then burning NC State for 121, Kentucky for 186 and had 226 rushing and 227 passing against Texas A&M. He’s going to have to find some resemblance of consistency, as he had completion percentages of 38.1 (Kentucky) and 46.2 (Texas A&M), but the fact that he was simply getting by on athleticism and didn’t have a strong grip on the offense makes the mere fact that he threw for 1,840 yards and 12 scores and ran for 960 and 11 more TDs all the more impressive. The defense is going to be key to this team’s success, but it’s Jackson that could take this offense to the next level. If he’s able to show an improvement, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he could work his way into the Heisman Trophy conversation.

One of the biggest coups of the Cardinals’ offseason was imply getting linebackers Devonte Fields and Keith Kelsey (along with last year’s safety Josh Harvey-Clemons and tackle DeAngelo Brown) to stay in school. The combination of Fields, the former Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year at TCU, and Kesey figures to be the true key to this defense. Fields started slow, but had 2 1/2 of his 11 sacks in the last four games, finished with 63 tackles in all and forced two fumbles. Kelsey returns after making 107 stops, including 12 for loss, and now that Harvey-Clemons is sliding over to the weak-side (after registering 88 tackles), this group could be even more dominant.

Follow Cory McCartney on Twitter @coryjmccartney and Facebook. His book, ‘Tales from the Atlanta Braves Dugout: A Collection of the Greatest Braves Stories Ever Told,’ is out now, and ‘The Heisman Trophy: The Story of an American Icon and Its Winners’ will be released Nov. 1, 2016.