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The Countdown

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

A Retrospective

The Year in Review: Louisville (7-6, 5-2)

I’ve heard of one or, the depth chart word meant to signify little separation between two position contenders, if not a word meant to signal true co-starter status, but Louisville took it to a whole other level late in 2011. Charlie Strong and the Cardinals see your one or, or your two ors, and raise you five ors, with five running backs theoretically neck-and-neck on the depth chart heading into the regular season finale against South Florida. That’s a game the Cardinals would win, by the way, to ensure a second consecutive bowl trip under Charlie Strong.

Strong can do what he likes, even if it means starting five running backs at one time, as whatever he’s doing is most definitely working. Having inherited a bit of a mess from Steve Kragthorpe, his predecessor, Strong has led the Cardinals to 14 wins in two years and, this past fall, to within one win of a B.C.S. berth.

That win would have been over Cincinnati on Oct. 15, a game Louisville lost, 25-16, to drop to 2-4 heading into the heart of Big East play. The Cardinals could have squeezed into the B.C.S. another way, had Connecticut beat Cincinnati in early December, but that head-to-head tiebreaker — one that would have given Louisville a 6-1 mark in Big East play overall — was the deciding factor between the Orange Bowl and the Belk Bowl.

Not that there’s the slightest thing wrong with the Belk Bowl, even if the Cardinals looked terrible for the better part of three quarters in its 31-24 loss to N.C. State. That Louisville returned to bowl play all, let alone came within a win of the B.C.S., shines extremely favorably on Strong. And this is nothing new.

It’s become common, in fact, for Strong to earn praise for his work with the Cardinals. In 2010, he led a moribund, downtrodden roster — beaten down by disappointing years under Kragthorpe — to the program’s first bowl berth since 2006. He duplicated that feat in 2011, adding another pair of wins in conference play despite working with one of the youngest and least experienced teams in the country.

Strong’s not working wonders; not exactly, at least. The talent he’s reeled in might be young, but it’s certainly not lacking in ability: his most recent recruiting haul, from last 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 with a true freshman playing quarterback. With three freshmen leading the way at receiver. With a sophomore and a freshman finishing second and third, respectively, in rushing.

With only one senior taking snaps along the defensive line; the rest were freshmen and sophomores, with freshmen most notably taking center stage at defensive end. With two freshmen starting on the defensive line. With two freshmen starting in the secondary.

The youth lends credence to the idea 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 next fall, as well as the fact that Strong is still around — and that West Virginia is not — highlights the idea that Louisville will be the Big East’s best team in 2012.

Season grade: A- 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 one of the nation’s most underrated defenses. 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.

Offensive M.V.P. Teddy Bridgewater struggled early, as you’d expect from a freshman quarterback, but Louisville hit its stride once he began to grow more comfortable in his starting role. It’s always a good sign when the lights seems to turn on during one’s freshman season; typically, it takes a quarterback at least one full season to find his bearings. The game slowed down for Bridgewater during conference play: his best game, a 241-yard, 3-touchdown performance against South Florida, came in the regular season finale.

Defensive M.V.P. The Cardinals got big years from cornerback Adrian Bushell and strong safety Hakeem Smith, each of whom earned first-team all-Big East honors. Bushell’s play was vital to this defense’s success, seeing that Louisville entered the year needing to replace starting cornerbacks Bobby Burns and Johnny Patrick. The most valuable member of this unit, however, was Dexter Heyman, who led the team in tackles (90) and tackles for loss (16.0) from his spot at middle linebacker. Louisville needed his experience on an otherwise raw front seven, and Heyman delivered.

Stock watch There weren’t many younger teams in college football in 2011, and this team’s youth, and the way it ended the year, point to big things in 2012. The Big East is open, what with West Virginia headed elsewhere, and the opportunity is there for the Cardinals to step in and fill the power vacuum atop the conference. At the very least, it’s difficult to see the Cardinals take any sort of step back from this past fall. The team was too young, and showed far too much down the stretch, to indicate that anything other than greater success lies in the near future. And there’s always Charlie Strong, who is staking a claim to being one of the top coaches in the country.

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  1. jjncaa says:

    I agree with the season grade, I think it was a great year for the Cardinals after all. And as a hungarian fan, it was a special year for me, too, because the Marshall @ Louisville game was the first college football game what I could see in person, Louisville-Rutgers the second and Louisville-Syracuse is the third :) Go Cards!

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