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Previewing the Atlantic: A Look at Louisville

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Let the Bobby Petrino implosion watch commence.

Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

When I think of Louisville football, I think of Teddy Bridgewater and Charlie Strong. Those dudes, of course, didn't hang around for the Cardinals' transition to the ACC. Alas, before we assume that the Ville will plummet into mediocrity without its first-round NFL quarterback and Texas-bound head coach, consider that the 12-1 Cardinals allowed just 12.2 points per game a year ago, the second lowest total in the nation. Despite the considerable talents of Bridgewater, this was a team that did it with defense. The Ville of 2013 was definitely not the same team Mike Glennon and company hung 31 points on in the 2011 Belk Bowl. What kind of team will it be in its inaugural ACC season?

Maybe the Cardinals should have gotten more ink for their defense, especially safety Calvin Pryor and end Marcus Smith, both of whom were selected ahead of the more highly publicized Bridgewater in the draft, but there's no guarantee that they will continue their stifling ways in the future. Just four players that started the 36-9 Russell Athletic Bowl blowout over Miami are listed as starters on the preseason 2014 depth chart. And, with the regime change that ushered Bobby Petrino back to the commonwealth, the Cardinals will switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense. With the personnel losses, change in scheme, and the move from the AAC to the more difficult ACC, it's a pretty safe bet that the Ville won't hold six opponents to single digits again in 2014.

So, if the Cardinals lost their coach, their quarterback, their defense, and their defensive scheme, what will they hang their hat on in year one under Petrino 2.0? Well, Petrino, for one thing. He was 41-9 in his first stint at Louisville, never winning fewer than nine games in a season and finishing ranked in the AP top five twice. Petrino was establishing similar success at Arkansas before off the field improprieties cut his tenure short. He's probably a pretty safe bet to succeed--he's done nothing else at the college level--but his disastrous tenure in the NFL and penchant for extramarital motorcycle rides may mean the bloom is off his rose. He's had limited recruiting success since being rehired by the Cardinals but promises to "keep banging away."

Lucky for him and Louisville fans, the cupboard is far from bare on offense even without Bridgewater. The Cardinals return all five of the linemen that started the Russell Athletic Bowl, including four seniors, and the red birds are loaded with talent at the skill positions, starting with bruising back Dominique Brown. Brown, a 6-3, 233-pound senior, had over 1,000 yards from scrimmage last year and reached pay dirt nine times. He averaged better than five yards per carry (5.1). Fellow senior Devante Parker, a big target at 6-3, 208 pounds, scored a team-high 12 touchdowns in a 55 reception, 885-yard season at wide receiver.

Parker is one of five senior receivers on the two-deep, three-receiver set. All that experience up front and at the skill positions should ease the transition for presumed starting QB Will Gardner, a redshirt sophomore who attempted just 12 passes last season as Bridgewater's understudy. Dude did complete nine of them, two for scores, but I'm pretty sure mop up duty against Florida International is an unreliable predictor of future success.

Obligatory table:

Team

Record

Returning Offensive Starters

Returning Defensive Starters

Kicker and Punter Returning?

Players Lost in Draft

2013 Score

Louisville

12-1, 7-1*

8^

4 or 5#

Yes to both

4

DNP

N.C. State

3-9, 0-8

7

8

Yes to both

1

DNP

*AAC conference record

^Louisville lists both a TE and three-receiver set on the depth chart, giving it 12 "starters"

#Depends on which chart from last year you look at (it's just four from the bowl game)

Despite a 12-1 season, the Cardinals never got much respect from the pollsters a year ago thanks to a laughable schedule (not that N.C. State can really stand in judgment in that regard) that Sports-Reference ranked as the 110th "hardest" in college football. One-loss Ville finished 15th in the AP poll behind 11 teams with two or more losses. The ACC media pegs Louisville to finish third behind usual ACC Atlantic Division suspects FSU and Clemson. ESPN's preseason power rankings place the Ville all the way down at 50th.

If the Cardinals are truly the 50th best team in the land, that's just a shade above Boston College and Maryland territory from last year. The gut reaction was "oh shit Louisville in the Atlantic too?!!?" but when you peel the onion a bit this game looks to be in the "winnable" category if State takes anything resembling a step forward in 2014. But then you remember it's on the road and wash that hope down with a barrel of rotgut. The Pack is 1-9 in their last 10 ACC road tilts.

I expect Louisville will allow twice as many points this year compared to last, but the offense should remain top-25 caliber even without Bridgewater. Given State's recent history of being embarrassed by power backs, it wouldn't be surprising to see Brown and a deep stable of backs wear State down and allow the home team to pull away in the 4th quarter. State does have the advantage of once again being in the letdown slot of an opponent's schedule, as this game is sandwiched between Clemson and Florida State on the Ville's schedule. Maybe the Pack can rush out to an early lead against a slumbering opponent and hold on.