2011 Record: (7-6, 5-2 in Big East)
Head Coach: Charlie Strong (14-12 at Louisville, 8-6 in Big East)
Last Bowl Game: 2011 season Belk Bowl: lost to NC State 31-24
Must Win: 9/2 vs Kentucky, 9/8 vs Missouri State, 9/29 at Southern Miss, 11/3 vs Temple
Revenge: 9/15 vs UNC, 9/22 at FIU, 10/13 at Pitt, 10/26 vs Cincinnati
Swing Games: 10/20 vs USF, 11/29 at Rutgers
Stats to Cheer: held opponents to 20.1 ppg in 2011 (2nd in Big East)
Stats to Fear: allowed opponents to convert 38.14% of third downs (7th in Big East); allowed 41 sacks (tied for 6th in Big East); scored a league low 21.9 ppg
Phil Steele's Returning Starters: (Offense: 7; Defense: 8; Specialists: 0)
Key Defensive Returnees: S Hakeem Smith (84 tackles), LB Preston Brown (84 tackles), CB Adrian Bushell (50 tackles), DE Marcus Smith (5.5 sacks), S Calvin Pryor (43 tackles, 2 INT), LB Daniel Brown (39 tackles)
Key Offensive Returnees: QB Teddy Bridgewater (14 TD, 12 INT), RB Dominique Brown (533 yds rush), WR Eli Rogers (41 rec), WR Michaelee Harris (35 rec), C Mario Benavides
CFBZ: With West Virginia leaving the conference, Louisville faces some increased expectations as being one of the favorites to win the division. Are they ready to take the next step and be a leader in the conference under Charlie Strong?
Big East Coast Bias: I think that's really the biggest question about this Louisville team. For the first two years under Charlie Strong they've succeeded with the "nobody respects us" mindset and now they'll likely be the favorites to win the conference after winning a share of the conference title last year. Can they handle success and expectation? They really didn't in stretches last year. They beat Kentucky, then lost to Marshall the following week. Beat West Virginia at West Virginia, then lose to Pitt the following week. My sense is that by the end of the season they'd become more comfortable with being favorites in going on the road to beat UConn and USF and then playing with NC State before ultimately losing. The team is older and should be more prepared for success.
CFBZ: The defense has been a definite strength under Charlie Strong. Who are some players to watch on the defensive side of the ball this season?
Big East Coast Bias: For Louisville, the secondary should be very strong and allow the defense to be pretty exotic with blitzes and man coverage. Hakeem Smith at safety was freshman All-Big East in 2010 and last year was all Big East. Cornerbacks Adrian Bushell and Andrew Johnson should be one of the better pairs of cornerbacks in the league. Junior linebacker Preston Brown moves to the middle to replace Dexter Heyman and should do well there. It's a position he's more suited for physically. Up front, Strong and company really love their defensive tackles in Brandon Dunn, Jamaine Brooks, and Roy Philon.
CFBZ: Louisville struggled a bit on offense last year. Most fans have heard of their young QB Teddy Bridgewater. Who needs to step up as a part of his supporting cast if Louisville is to improve on offense?
Big East Coast Bias: Louisville really has a ton of very young, very talented skill position players the coaches insist the any of the four running backs (Dominique Brown, Jeremy Wright, Senorise Perry, and Corvin Lamb) can play and they started three freshmen wide receivers for most of the season. The single biggest factor in the offense's success is the health and play of the offensive line. Last year Louisville played two games without center Mario Benavides, and against quality defensive teams like North Carolina, Louisville played with three freshmen on the line. All of those guys return and if there's a high jump between freshman and sophomore seasons, the offense will be just fine.
CFBZ: What is your gut feeling on the final record for the 2012 season and what makes the season successful in your eyes?
Big East Coast Bias: I think Louisville should see this as a Big East championship or bust season. The talent is there, the tough games (save Rutgers) are at home, and they've got continuity of both players and staff for the first time. Anything less than that should be considered a failure.
Louisville struggled out of conference last year. They beat Murray State and Kentucky but lost the other four games they played against non-conference foes. In conference, the Cardinals played much better going 5-2 after posting a 3-4 conference record in Charlie Strong's debut season.
One of the reasons for the better conference record was the development of true freshman Teddy Bridgewater. In his first seven games, he had 5 TD and 6 INT and in his last six he had 9 TD and 6 INT. He also had 200+ yard passing games in three of his final five games. With playing experience under his belt Bridgewater will be much more prepared to play this year and many expect him to be the top QB in the Big East as a sophomore. As Mark mentioned, three of the top returning receiving targets were freshman last year so we should see those players have more of an impact on the game in year two. One player who will be missed is TE Josh Chichester. A definite area that needs improvement is the running game. In 2010, Louisville had Bilal Powell and they averaged 4.82 ypc. Last year, they averaged just 3.39 ypc. With Bridgewater more prepared this season, there will be more balance and that should help out the running game.
Anybody who follows SEC football knows the name Charlie Strong and they know that Strong's teams play defense. In the two years Strong has been at Louisville, his teams have allowed 19.4 ppg and 20.1 ppg (both placed Louisville in the top 20 of the Nation). There is no reason to think Louisville will fall off this season. Louisville does lose two of it's top four tacklers but overall they lose just three of their top ten and guys that Strong recruited specifically for his system will be taking their place.
The Big East is wide open and it will be very interesting to see which team jumps to the forefront to grab the mantle before Boise State makes it's way to the conference. I look for Louisville to make the jump this year and have them as the team to beat in the Big East.
2012 Prediction: 9-3
Previous 2012 Previews: