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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 35: Louisville

Charlie Strong’s not working wonders; not exactly, at least. The talent he’s brought into Louisville over the last two years might be young, but it’s certainly not lacking in ability: his most recent recruiting haul, from February, was studded with high-profile additions from Florida, where Strong has used his Gainesville ties to great effect. Regardless of the talent level, however, winning games in a B.C.S. conference, whether or not it’s the Big East, is no easy feat. The Cardinals won games last fall with a true freshman playing quarterback. With three freshmen leading the way at receiver. With two freshmen starting on the defensive line. With two freshmen starting in the secondary. So perhaps it’s not surprising to see that Louisville played its best football in October and November, a statement the team’s won-loss record backs up: 2-4 heading into mid-October, the Cardinals closed the regular season with five wins in six games. That this youth will be a year wiser come September, as well as the fact that Strong is still around — and that West Virginia is not — explains why most believe that Louisville will be the Big East’s best team in 2012.

Conference
Big East

Location
Louisville

Nickname
Cardinals

Returning starters
tk (tk offense, tk defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 79

2011 record
(7-6, 5-2)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 49

2012 schedule

  • Sept. 2
    Kentucky
  • Sept. 8
    Missouri St.
  • Sept. 15
    U.N.C.
  • Sept. 22
    at F.I.U.
  • Sept. 29
    at Southern Miss.
  • Oct. 13
    at Pittsburgh
  • Oct. 20
    U.S.F.
  • Oct. 26
    Cincinnati
  • Nov. 3
    Temple
  • Nov. 10
    at Syracuse
  • Nov. 24
    UConn
  • Nov. 29
    at Rutgers

Last year’s prediction

Most are predicting a slight decline in the win column for Louisville in 2011, and while I’d love to play the contrarian, thanks to my respect for what Charlie Strong brings to the table, I have to get in line and follow suit. The major issue is really across the board, where U.L. lacks satisfactory depth. One thing a solid first year does do is raise expectations heading into year two; you’d never trade away the feel-good nature of a year ago, but the seven-win finish does set up the premise that the climb will continue with each passing year. I don’t see the progression continuing in the win column, but I do see continued progression in all facets not calculated in the standings. Louisville has a very nice future under Strong, whether this year finds the Cardinals at 5-7 or otherwise.

2011 recap

In a nutshell All seven-win seasons aren’t created equal, as Louisville illustrated in 2011. The Cardinals weren’t the best team in the Big East, nor the most experienced, and the latter showed during their foul start in September and early October. So how does the team that lost to Florida International and Marshall come within 60 minutes of the Orange Bowl? With coaching, terrific coaching, and with young talent that played beyond its years. The trick in 2012 will be putting everything together — coaching, offense and defense. Considering the early obstacles and the team’s inherent weaknesses, the 7-6 finish marks another impressive season for Strong and his staff.

High point A 38-35 win at West Virginia on the first Saturday of November. There wouldn’t be a finer victory all year, though the Cardinals did beat Rutgers, 16-14, in October.

Low point The loss to Cincinnati, which at the time was merely the third loss in a row for Louisville but was one that eventually decided the Big East championship.

Tidbit So just how young was Louisville last year? The Cardinals played 11 true freshmen over the season’s first six games, which was one more than Strong had used in all of 2010. In all, each of the 11 true freshmen made at least one start; 22 different players – freshmen or otherwise, primarily freshmen and sophomores – made their first career start; and 26 players, just a touch less than a quarter of Louisville’s roster, made their first college appearance. It wasn’t an exaggeration: Louisville was very, very young.

Tidbit (comebacks edition) The Cardinals have not played well from behind under Strong, partially as a result of the team’s so-so passing game over the last two years. Since 2010, Louisville is 2-7 when trailing at halftime and 1-9 when trailing after three quarters. Conversely, U.L. is 9-4 when leading at halftime and 12-4 when ahead heading into the fourth quarter. One positive development seen last season was the Cardinals’ ability to win close games; after going 1-4 in games decided by a touchdown or less in 2010, U.L. went 2-4 in such games a year ago.

Former players in the N.F.L.

23 K David Akers (San Francisco), TE Gary Barnidge (Carolina), WR Josh Bellamy (Kansas City), FB Brock Bolen (Jacksonville), WR Deion Branch (New England), RB James Bryant (Detroit), RB Michael Bush (Chicago), WR Harry Douglas (Atlanta), DE Elvis Dumervil (Denver), CB William Gay (Arizona), OT Breno Giacomini (Seattle), TE Cameron Graham (Tennessee), LB Dexter Heyman (Kansas City), LB Brandon Johnson (Pittsburgh), DT Amobi Okoye (Tampa Bay), CB Johnny Patrick (New Orleans), RB Bilal Powell (New York Jets), QB Chris Redman (Atlanta), S Kerry Rhodes (Arizona), DE Greg Scruggs (Seattle), OG Jason Spitz (Jacksonville), OT Byron Stingily (Tennessee), C Eric Wood (Buffalo).

Arbitrary top five list

College sports writers most likely to be Tweeting
1. Mark Ennis, Big East Coast Bias (@Mengus22).
2. Bryan Fischer, CBS Sports (@BryanDFischer).
3. Marc Morehouse, C.R. Gazette (@marcmorehouse).
4. Travis Haney, ESPN.com (@TravHaneyESPN).
5. Holly Anderson, Sports Illustrated (@SIHolly)

Coaching

Charlie Strong (Central Arkansas ’82), 14-12 after two seasons with the Cardinals. A very nice start for the far-too-long-overlooked coach. After winning seven games in his debut season, Strong followed that up with a seven-win finish last fall despite playing with one of the youngest rosters in college football. His major college coaching career begin at Florida in 1988, when he began the first of two seasons as the team’s outside linebackers coach. After spending one season at Mississippi, Strong returned to U.F. as the defensive ends coach (1991-93). He was promoted to assistant head coach in 1994, but left for Notre Dame in 1995. After four seasons (1995-98) as the defensive line coach – working alongside Urban Meyer – Strong earned another promotion, moving to South Carolina as its defensive coordinator. While with the Gamecocks, Strong’s defense went from allowing 25.3 points per game in 1999 to fewer than 19.2 in each of the next two seasons; not surprisingly, U.S.C. improved from 0-11 in 1999 to a combined 17-7 from 2000-1. Strong leaped at the opportunity to return to Florida in 2003 as the team’s defensive coordinator, and added the title of assistant head coach upon Meyer’s arrival in 2005. While the Florida offense earned the headlines, it was the defense that separated the program from the rest of college football over Strong’s final five seasons in Gainesville. The Gators went 52-10 over that span, winning 13 games three times (2006, 2008-9) and a pair of national championships. Outside of an atypically poor output in 2007 (25.5 points per game), the Gators allowed fewer than 19.0 points per game in each of Strong’s final five seasons as coordinator, culminating with the fourth-best defense in the nation in 2009. With this resume, one can only ask why it took so long for Strong to finally get his chance as the face of a program. Other program’s hesitation has been Louisville’s gain.

Tidbit (coaching edition) Shawn Watson will continue serving as Louisville’s offensive coordinator, a task he took over last October after then-coordinator Mike Sanford was relieved of his duties. Formerly of Nebraska, Watson left Lincoln under a bit of a dark cloud; he was blamed for the Cornhuskers’ offensive failures in 2009 and 2010, though it was obvious that his philosophy didn’t jibe with what Bo Pelini was looking for from his offense – Watson is a nice pro-style coordinator, but not someone who necessarily fit into what Nebraska wanted to accomplish. Strong filled the empty spot on his offensive coaching staff by promoting former graduate assistant Sherrone Moore to his tight ends coach.

One other coaching change: Larry Slade, one of the great position coaches of this past generation of college football, retired in March after three seasons as the Cardinals’ secondary coach. Slade, who transitioned into a role as the program’s Director of Community Relations and Career Preparations, will be replaced by former quality control assistant Tommy Restivo.

Players to watch

Watson had a noticeable impact on last year’s offense, even if the numbers imply otherwise. But one area where Louisville clearly improved with Watson running the offense was in simple balance: Sanford’s offense lacked a clear commitment to the running game, even if the Cardinals ran the ball well against Kentucky; Watson placed greater emphasis on running the football, helping U.L. average 121.9 yards per game on the ground over his nine games as coordinator, cracking the 100-yard mark in each of its last seven games – led by a high of 187 yards in the season-changing win over Rutgers.

Part of Watson’s altered philosophy was based out of necessity, to be fair. Junior Will Stein was Louisville’s starting quarterback coming out of fall camp, and he remained the starter until suffering an injury against the Wildcats – and rapidly lost his tenuous grasp on the starting job. From that point forward, and from that point through the next three seasons, Louisville’s starting quarterback was and will be sophomore Teddy Bridgewater, who helped lead U.L. to a win over the Wildcats and another five victories down the stretch to clinch bowl eligibility.

He started slowly, as most true freshmen do, tossing four interceptions over his first three starts, all losses. But Bridgewater’s in-season progression bodes very well for his future: from Rutgers through the end of the regular season, Bridgewater completed 99 of 145 attempts – that’s 68.3 percent – with eight touchdowns against three interceptions. He capped the regular season with a beauty, ripping apart South Florida’s secondary, but was asked to do a bit too much in the bowl loss against N.C. State, when he set a new career-low with three interceptions.

The numbers don’t really do Bridgewater justice; he was a true freshman, and where he really improved were in those areas outside the box score – in terms of his comfort level in the pocket, his subtle progress is making all his reads, the quiet and steady leadership, one well beyond his years, to a similarly young and unproven stable of skill players. Bridgewater enters 2012 as the Big East’s best quarterback not merely for what he has already accomplished but for what he has the potential to achieve with some experience under his belt. For Louisville’s sophomore, the sky is the limit.

The Cardinals are still auditioning four options for the top spot at running back, though it’s likely that the entire quartet shuffle carries throughout much of the season. There is a leader, however: Dominique Brown (533 yards), a junior, returns for a second season at the position after being moved over from quarterback. One thing to like about Brown is that he runs hard; you wondered about his ability to earn tough yardage as a converted quarterback, but Brown showed no compunction about lowering his pads as churning out yards between the tackles. Behind Brown – who I do think will earn the most carries – are juniors Jeremy Wright (334 yards) and Senorise Perry and redshirt freshman Corvin Lamb, with the latter perhaps the most explosive skill player on the roster.

Look for stronger play along an offensive line that started three freshmen a season ago. While the Cardinals lost one starter, right tackle Ryan Kessling, Strong and line coach Dave Borbely have to be every excited about this group’s potential; a year older, wiser and more experienced, the front will continue to progress throughout this coming season. The anchor can be found in the middle: Mario Benavides, a senior, is the best center in the Big East. He’ll be flanked by sophomores John Miller and Jake Smith at left and right guard, respectively, with both coming off strong rookie seasons – Smith in particular. Senior Alex Kupper has found a home at left tackle after spending some time inside earlier in his career, including three starts in the middle to open last season while Benavides was dealing with an injury.

He’ll bookend the line with the most promising lineman on the roster: Jamon Brown, another sophomore, was moved over to the offensive line early last season after starting his career at defensive tackle; after only a week of practice, Brown was moved into the starting lineup against North Carolina. While he eventually stepped back into a reserve role after a pair of starts, Brown is a hulking, bruising, intimidating blocker who should team with Smith to give U.L. a great strong side in the run game. Depth is an issue, especially at tackle, but the Cardinals like junior Kamran Joyer in a reserve role – he’s too small to be a full-time starter – and have already identified redshirt freshman Mike Romano as the heir apparent at center.

While Louisville returns a load of young talent at receiver, highlighted by a pair of sophomore poised for big things, there is one area of concern: the short-passing game. It’s here that U.L. must replace tight end Josh Chichester, a big-bodied former receiver, and get more from its backfield to replace Victor Anderson, the team’s third-leading receiver. But you like what the Cardinals have outside, especially if sophomore Michaelee Harris (35 catches for 438 yards) makes a full recovery from last season’s A.C.L. tear. He’s one of three sophomores who made an impact a year ago, joining Eli Rogers (41 for 454) and DeVante Parker (18 for 291) – the latter a big-play threat.

That’s your starting trio, unless seniors Scott Radcliffe and Andrell Smith make things interesting during fall camp; Radcliffe worked his way into the mix with a strong spring. But what will U.L. do at tight end? Senior Nate Nord is the most complete option at the position, should he remain healthy, but keep an eye on sophomore Ryan Hubbell, a JUCO transfer who enrolled early, and junior Chris White, a former walk-on who grew into a larger role in the offense over the last season’s final month.

Louisville hit the defense hard on the recruiting trail during this past cycle, signing at least 11 prospects who translate to the defensive side of the ball. You’ll see several true freshmen continue to make a run at playing time in 2012, even if U.L. is more experienced than it was at this point a season ago. But by and large, and despite the overwhelming youth – particularly up front and in the secondary – the Cardinals did a nice job on defense last fall; while West Virginia had its way and the pass defense struggled down the stretch, it was obvious that Strong and defensive coordinator Vance Bedford found the right mix of players and schemes over the second half of the season.

The strength of this defense is its secondary, which returns the wide majority of last season’s contributors. Hopefully, another year of experience will help this group reverse last season’s poor finish: U.L. allowed 274.0 yards per game over the year’s last five games after seemingly turning a corner in October. Much will be riding on the Cardinals’ ability to land steady play at the cornerback position opposite of senior Adrian Bushell (5o tackles, 1 interceptions), who should challenge for first-team all-Big East honors. Louisville has two options, both sophomores, in Andrew Johnson (25 tackles) and Terrell Floyd – with Johnson the likely starter.

One thing to like about Johnson is that he responded with some confidence after being thrown to the wolves as a true freshman starter. And like the rest of Louisville’s younger defenders, Johnson will step into September with a greater knowledge of what it takes to compete against F.B.S. receivers – and like the rest of this secondary, can breathe a little easier knowing that the Mountaineers aren’t on the schedule. Louisville has a second all-conference lock in junior strong safety Hakeem Smith (84 tackles), a first-team pick last fall. He’s joined at free safety by sophomore Calvin Pryor (43 tackles, 2 interceptions), who took over at the position in time to help Louisville turn its season around during conference play.

There are several younger players who could move into the rotation with a strong fall camp. One is true freshman Gerod Holliman, who would push for Pryor for snaps if he can make a complete recovery following springtime shoulder surgery. Another pair of freshmen, cornerback Charles Gaines and strong safety Jermaine Reve, are coming off redshirt seasons. From top to bottom, U.L. has strong depth, solid leadership and the potential for substantial improvement against the pass.

For now, senior Daniel Brown (39 tackles, 4.0 for loss) is the starter at weak side linebacker. But he’s going to need to rebound from a dreadfully disappointing junior season to hold onto his starting job, especially with true freshmen Keith Brown and James Burgess breathing down his neck – the two four-star prospects were on campus for spring ball, and the program will add another four-star recruit, Nick Dawson, during fall camp. At some point, you could see Brown adding some weight and moving over to the strong side; he’s only 225 pounds heading into August, however, so he’s probably best suited for the weak side as a rookie. U.L. likes bigger linebackers, and they don’t get much bigger than 257-pound junior Preston Brown (84 tackles), who moves to middle linebacker to replace Dexter Heyman, the team’s most productive defender.

Brown’s position change puts him under a spotlight. While Heyman was smaller, his explosive burst helped him be one of the league’s most disruptive linebackers – Heyman had 16.0 tackles for loss, the most on the team and the second-most in the Big East. Hopefully, sophomore Deiontrez Mount can help the Cardinals regain some of Heyman’s lost production. After shuffling between end and linebacker last fall, Mount moves permanently to the strong side. His length might be a detriment at times – you wonder how well he’ll be able to shed blockers – but Mount can give Louisville some fire coming off the edge on passing downs. While there are a few question marks about the starting trio, it will be interesting to see if the three new true freshmen work themselves into key roles.

Louisville must find a new punter and a new kicker, not to mention do a better job covering kickoffs. The new face at kicker – stepping into a fairly distinguished line of starters at the position – is redshirt freshman John Wallace, who replaces Chris Philpott. At punter, Louisville can either turn to sophomore Ryan Johnson, who handled the duties during the spring, or to incoming freshman Josh Appelby. While the Cardinals can be explosive on their own kickoff returns, they need to prevent the opposition from being the same.

Position battle(s) to watch

Defensive line Here’s my concern: Louisville’s secondary puts the clamps down. No, that’s not the concern. My concern is that the secondary improves to the point where teams focus more so on running against the Cardinals, and the team’s lack of experience and production along the front seven proves to be its downfall. As noted above, U.L. isn’t loaded with proven linebackers; while there’s talent there, the Cardinals must get more production from Daniel Brown and Preston Brown while landing some quality snaps from at least one or two of the true freshmen. The situation is even more dire up front, where Louisville simply doesn’t have the sort of depth Strong is looking for from his defensive line.

Well, there is depth – it’s just coming in true freshmen, particularly inside. As of today, the Cardinals’ top reserves along the interior include Pedro Sibiea, Sheldon Rankins and DeAngelo Brown, three linemen signed in February – the only three linemen signed in February. This issue could be exacerbated by any lingering issues stemming from junior Roy Philon’s springtime back injury. Philon (36 tackles, 6.5 for loss) is the only returning interior linemen with the proven ability to wreak havoc at the point of attack; while U.L. also returns nose tackles Brandon Dunn and Jamaine Brooks, both are block-occupying linemen, not the sort that are going to make plays behind the line of scrimmage.

That’s a concern, as is Louisville’s ability to mount a consistent pass rush with its front four. Last fall, the Cardinals relied heavily on then-senior William Savoy’s ability to bring pressure on passing downs. A year later, U.L. will look toward sophomore D.J. Dubose (22 tackles, 2.0 sacks) and junior Marcus Smith (12 tackles, 5.5 sacks) to help pick up the slack. Smith is a very dangerous situational rusher, as his 2011 totals indicate. But he’ll be asked to do more this fall, giving more support against the run, even if U.L. can team him with a bigger end like junior B.J. Butler. Sometimes, giving a situational end a larger role leads to even greater production; at other times, as with Brandon Mills at Cincinnati, you quickly discover that the increased workload leads to diminished returns.

Game(s) to watch

It’s a similar schedule to a year ago with one significant twist: Louisville will play four Big East home games, not three. That helps, as does the fact that South Florida and Cincinnati – two of the league’s best teams – are included among that home quartet. But it’s still a pretty tough schedule by Big East standards, one that includes nine games against B.C.S. conference competition and another pair of games, both on the road, against two of the best non-B.C.S. conference teams in the country in Florida International and Southern Mississippi. The Big East’s B.C.S. bid will come down to Louisville at Rutgers on Nov. 29, a game the Cardinals play only four full days after hosting Connecticut. Early prediction for the Governor’s Cup: Louisville 28, Kentucky 13.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Louisville’s close, close, close to breaking through under Charlie Strong – close to not only winning the Big East but close to taking pretty firm control of a league suffering a power vacuum following West Virginia’s departure to the Big 12. The clear improvement you saw from nearly the entire roster over the second half of last season will continue come September: U.L. is going to get a full and improved season out of Bridgewater, who is ready to take the next step; the running game, thanks to an improved offensive line, should find greater success between the tackles; the receiver corps’ three sophomores will play with greater consistency; and the secondary, should Johnson step up at cornerback, will compete with Rutgers for the title of the Big East’s best.

But there are issues, and the program won’t simply skyrocket from seven wins into the next stratosphere – double-digit wins, a national ranking and a B.C.S. bid. I look at the front seven and see a group that could struggle getting stops against power-running teams like South Florida and Rutgers or a finesse-based team like Cincinnati. As good as the secondary could be, Louisville’s pass defense could fall apart if the line and linebackers can’t contain the run. Special teams is another issue: U.L. breaks in new starters at kicker and punter and must address its coverage teams. No Big East team is perfect. But U.L. doesn’t look as complete when compared to Rutgers, even if the Scarlet Knights must answer questions about their ability to deliver in the passing game.

Then, the most intangible issue: Is Louisville ready? I understand that this team closed strong with the same cast, but this group remains as young – though not necessarily as inexperienced – as any realistic contender on the B.C.S. conference level. Even a year wiser, are the sophomores that litter the depth chart ready to take the next step? One thing in Louisville’s corner is Strong, of course, who is poised to take a big leap onto the national radar. But all in all, this team’s personnel issues on defense and its continued youth has me picking them to finish second in the Big East, behind the Scarlet Knights. The Cardinals will win another game during the regular season, however, and continue to make noise inside and out of conference play.

Dream season Louisville opens with a 42-0 win over Kentucky, which feels great, before winning another four games to cap non-conference play. The Cardinals’ only loss during Big East play comes at home to Cincinnati; this team heads to a B.C.S. bowl following an 11-win regular season.

Nightmare season After closing last season with a bang, U.L. opens September with a whimper. The Cardinals lose to Kentucky, North Carolina and Florida International in September, and beat only Temple, Syracuse and Connecticut during Big East play. After back-to-back bowl seasons, Louisville slides down to 5-7.

In case you were wondering

Where do Louisville fans congregate? For message board chatter, check out Cardinal Sports and Inside The Ville. Additional coverage can be found at the Web site of The Courier-Journal and the blogs Card Chronicle and Big East Coast Bias.

Louisville’s all-name nominee FB Bo Eggers.

Word Count

Through 90 teams 358,350.

Up Next

Who is No. 34? Tomorrow’s program scored more points against its first four F.B.S. opponents last fall than it would score against its final eight F.B.S. opponents.

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Comments

  1. GA Tech says:

    GA Tech is next.

  2. Parker says:

    Here come the Florida Gators!

  3. jtt says:

    The next team is definitely Tennessee, as their team did well against it’s Out of conference but fared poorly against SEC’s defences.

  4. jtt says:

    Tennessee was 151 in the first four and 93 in the last 8

  5. Matt says:

    Could also be Georgia Tech, though I was hoping they’d be a little higher than 34!

  6. Matt Rob says:

    Dang, so Rutgers is the only Big East team left in the Countdown? They’ll probably be in the low 30s too.

    Gonna be a banner year for the Big East.

  7. Devil (in the details) says:

    @jtt

    The clue specified against FBS teams, Tennessee only played 11 FBS teams in 2011.

    Doesn’t seem like Tennessee fits the clue.

    GA Tech or Florida do…any others?

  8. Jim Narby says:

    it is dumbfounding that nebraska made it this far.

  9. Scott Wallace says:

    28 days to game day. Camp is open

  10. jw says:

    Georgia Tech…

    195 v. MTSU, Kansas, UNC, NC State
    188 v. Maryland, UVa, Miami, Clemson, VT, Duke, UGa, Utah

  11. Patty says:

    Whats is the all – name nominee? Please explain

  12. DMK says:

    Patty,

    It’s the guys with the silliest names.

    Like Patty O’Beef, C. O. W. Patty, Guus Liver Patty.

  13. Parker says:

    And Florida it is!

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