Head Coach: Bobby Petrino
2015 Record: 8-5
2015 Bowl: 27-21 Win over Texas A&M at Music City Bowl
2016 Returning Starters: 7 Offense, 8 Defense
Odds to win 2017 Championship Game: +7500
Odds to win 2016 ACC Championship: +1050
Regular Season over/under: over 9 (+105); under 9 (-135)
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The Louisville Cardinals could surprise this season, and if they do it will be on the strength of dual-threat QB Lamar Jackson. Jackson ran for 960 yards and 11 TDs last season, and he had 226 yards and two TDs in the bowl win over Texas A&M.
Even so, his passing accuracy lingered at 54.6 percent, a mark that will have to hike up if the Cardinals are to rely on him as a dual-threat ignitor to its offense. He threw 24 of 29 for eight TDs in the spring game, which is either an indicator he’s made a lot of progress or a sign of how poor the defense was—is there any way to tell?
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What should help Jackson is the strength of Louisville’s OL, which returns a lot of talent including three starters. The coverage for Jackson has to improve after ranking second-to-last in sacks allowed in 2015. At WR, the Cardinals have Jamari Staples who caught for 638 yards and three TDs last season, as well as James Quick who caught 624 yards and five TDs. Ja’Quay Savage will be in the mix as the third WR.
Louisville has the dogs to get out and run, and Jackson has the arm to reach them. But will it really all come together? Last season, Louisville averaged just 28.7 points per game while racking up 416 yards per game, but the Cardinals have to be better than that still to contend with the likes of FSU and Clemson, however far of a long-shot that may be.
In the backfield the Cardinals will turn to redshirt senior Brandon Radcliff as the No. 1 back. Former QB Reggie Bonnafron also will see time in the backfield and at WR, and it can be expected Petrino finds a way to get the mega-athlete his reps.
Louisville allowed 24.7 points per game last season (ranking tied-No. 39 in the nation) while giving up 332.8 yards per game (No. 18). The Cards return S Josh Harvey-Clemons who had 88 tackles and three INTs last season, as well as LB Keith Kelsey who had 107 tackles. DeVonte Fields also returns, and he had 11 sacks in 2015. That trio alone will keep Louisville’s defense clicking.
LB Stacy Thomas could take it to the next level this season and Chucky Williams will function well at S where he had 62 tackles and three INTs last season. Shaq Wiggins and Trumaine Washington will be the CBs and Jaire Alexander will also rotate into the mix. The depth will help.
D’Angelo Brown is a great disruptor in the middle of the line, and Trevon Young will also be part of that attack as a guy with 8.5 sacks last season. At DE, Drew Bailey and Johnny Richardson will look to replace Sheldon Rankins and Pio Vatuvei, but behind them there is not much depth. The Cardinals have some premier defensive players, but it will take a perfect storm of avoiding injuries at key positions this season for the fort to hold.
There will be a lot of turnover in the special teams. John Wallace and Josh Appleby are gone as kicker and punter, and though there are a lot of options for returns, none have been penciled in as definite yet.
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Louisville opens the season Sept. 1 at home against Charlotte, and it will face Florida State already in Week 3 before a fluff week against Marshall. Week 5, 6, and 7 pick right back up with Clemson, Duke and NC State. The Cardinals can compete and even quasi-contend in the ACC Atlantic Division, but its schedule does it no favors in doing so.
The strength of Louisville’s defense should keep them right there in the ACC. Losing Rankins is a huge blow, but DC Todd Grantham has plenty of talent to make his schemes work and Louisville was a tough defensive team in 2015, which really should have resulted in a better season than 9-6. This season trends up, slightly.
Prediction: 10 wins
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