Team: Louisville Cardinals
2012 W-L: 11-2 (5-2 in the Big East)
Head Coach: Charlie Strong (25-14; fourth season)
Returning Starters: 14 (5 Offense, 9 Defense)
Just to get this out of the way first: the Louisville Cardinals will not be playing in the ACC until 2014, but obviously we’re covering them anyway. In their first and only season in the newly-formed American Athletic Conference, the Cards are the league’s best team by a mile and have a very real chance at going unbeaten. Their star junior quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater, also has a very good shot at winning the Heisman Trophy. This all we know. But what we’re unsure of is the effect of those pressures on this team’s performance. Despite being the best team in the then-Big East last season, Louisville still managed to lose two conference games and escape several close calls versus overmatched opponents out of conference. So despite their blend of youth and experience, and a huge victory over Florida in the Sugar Bowl, there’s still a lot of uncertainty around this team, believe it or not.
One area where we can be virtually certain about the Cardinals is the quarterback position, though. Bridgewater more than proved himself to be the real deal in 2012, putting up over 3,700 passing yards to go with 27 TDs and just eight interceptions — capped by another strong performance against the Gators, one of the country’s top defenses. He’s been in the system long enough that he knows it like the back of his hand. The only concern could be his offensive line, which says goodbye to center Mario Benavides and also installs a sophomore, Abraham Garcia, at the all-important left tackle spot. Overall size across the board isn’t great, but Bridgwater’s agile enough to allude tacklers (despite needing to add a few pounds to his 193-pound frame if he wants to be able to absorb a few more hits).
Lucky for Bridgewater, his supporting playmakers should also be able to bail him out when necessary. Last year’s backfield was racked with injuries, so off the bat, it’ll be a huge help to have both Dominique Brown and Senorise Perry healthy. While Brown missed all of last season, he managed over 500 yards rushing in 2011 and Perry had over 700 last season himself. The two players have completely opposite rushing styles, and that could help improve upon 2012’s paltry 122 yards per game on the ground. At wideout, Bridgewater will have his pick of talented targets, as DeVante Parker and Damian Copeland alone combined for 90 catches and 12 touchdowns. Ball distribution was a bigger key last year though, as 11 different players caught 10 or more balls in their 24th-ranked passing offense, and it will be again if they’re hoping to achieve similar success in that regard.
Defensively, Louisville was incredibly young last season, and now with nine starters returning, that should pay huge dividends going forward. Despite allowing just 192 passing yards per game, easily in the top quarter of the country, the Cards also let us 22 scores through the air (71st). The discrepancy outlines a bigger issue with red zone defense — where they ranked 90th in opponent scoring percentage — and calls attention to some struggles hidden by the lack of big plays against this unit. Terrell Floyd will lead the secondary, while improving upon the example set for him by the departed Adrian Bushell at corner. And he’ll get some assistance from the safety spot as well. Both Hakeem Smith and Calvin Pyror are big hitters who get in front of passes pretty regularly. Their high-risk, high-reward style of play has worked thus far, but it’s also a bigger part of the red zone struggles in 2012, too. They’ll excel this season, though it’s worth keeping an eye out for how they adjust coverage-wise, especially given the new rules on hitting ball-carriers.
Up front, there’s a bit of a size issue, punctuated by the fact that the Cardinals were just 97th in the country in tackles for loss, with 59 on the season. The team has sound pass-rushers in Marcus Smith and Brandon Dunn (both seniors), but they’re susceptible to being shut down by larger offensive linemen as well. It’s also the reason the team’s linebacker corps has to rack up so many tackles. Preston Brown had 108 stops in 2012, and also helped out in terms of the pass-rush and in pass-protection as well. He’s a versatile linebacker — maybe one of the more versatile you’ll see — and is unquestionably the motor that keeps this entire group going. Due to a light schedule, they won’t be tested by a ton of big teams up front, or big receivers in the secondary though, which could help ease the load on the star senior MLB.
As mentioned, Louisville spends one seasons in purgatory over in the American, but this really isn’t the worst team to go through that with, when you think about it. Bridgewater should have ample opportunities to improve his Heisman and draft stock, this line’s lack of size should remain mostly untested and the defense will not be playing on its heels much — all good signs for a stellar season. When it comes to the BCS rankings, the Cardinals will find themselves slighted, even if they go unbeaten, but at least they’re guaranteed a money bowl slot if they win the conference. Louisville is on to bigger and better things in the ACC next year, so why not head there riding a pretty phenomenal wave of momentum?
Prediction: (12-0) (8-0 in AAC); Orange Bowl