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The Countdown

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

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Scratching the Surface at Louisville

On paper, this isn’t a comforting thought: Charlie Strong has won the same number of games in his debut season, six, as Steve Kragthorpe won in 2007, his first season as Bobby Petrino’s replacement. Be still: that’s where the similarities end. That 2007 team was a lackluster disgrace, a shell of itself offensively and inept defensively. This year’s Cardinals, though 6-6, have showed the type of mental toughness sorely lacking on each of Kragthorpe’s three teams, a welcome sight for a fan base distraught over the speed with which it was built and subsequently brought back down by good and bad coaching, respectively.

It’s early, but I think we can put Charlie Strong into the former category: he’s a good football coach. A little straight-laced, perhaps, a little top-button-buttoned, but there’s nothing wrong with that — as long as his team continues to play tough, competitive football.

There’s a word for this season — competitive. It’s often the dying call of an average team, yes, but not in this case. In the case of the 2010 Cardinals, competitiveness is something to write home about.

Of those six losses, five came by eight points or less. Judge that against Louisville in 2009, when only two of its eight defeats came by that same margin. In 2009, the Cardinals lost three Big East games by 20 or more points. In a word, those Cardinals were the worst team of the Kragthorpe era — that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement.

Here’s what we’ve seen from Louisville under Strong: a 23-16 loss to Kentucky to open the season, a seven-point loss at Oregon State, an eight-point home loss to Cincinnati, an overtime loss to South Florida and a seven-point loss to West Virginia. The one loss that stands out is a 20-3 decision at Pittsburgh, a game where the Cardinals struggled mightily moving the ball after losing running back Bilal Powell to a knee injury.

There was also that impressive shutout win over Connecticut, as well as road victories over Syracuse and Rutgers — the latter clinching bowl eligibility. The win over the Scarlet Knights was meaningful for more than that reason: for the first time in years, Louisville was expected to take care of a conference foe on the road. The Cardinals delivered.

The toughest part of any rebuilding job is reversing a losing culture, as one of Charlie Strong’s coaching mentors, Urban Meyer, can attest. The latter was forced to remake Florida’s brand after three seasons under Ron Zook, who followed up a program legend in Steve Spurrier. Sound familiar? Replace Meyer with Strong, Zook with Kragthorpe and Spurrier with Bobby Petrino, and we’re talking about Louisville.

If getting rid of the losing mentality is the first step in Strong’s rebuilding process, the Cardinals are headed on the right path. That first step has been accomplished, whether Louisville wins or loses against Southern Mississippi tomorrow night.

If Strong can continue to move Louisville along this path — next up is seven, eight, nine wins — then the Cardinals might just be scratching the surface of their potential under its rookie coach. Considering how wide open the Big East seems on a yearly basis, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Louisville could take that next step as soon as next season.

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  1. Ezra says:

    I, for one, expect the TCU-Louisville rivalry that was beginning to blossom when both were in CUSA to roar to the fore very quickly, beginning 2012.

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