No. 14 Louisville
Louisville was barreling toward a playoff spot last November before they scored 10 points in a blowout loss at Houston and yielded 41 in a three-point home loss to Kentucky. They were crushed by self-inflicted wounds (e.g. turnovers, missed tackles) and have spent much of the offseason tightening the small details.
Can Lamar Jackson, a new defensive coordinator and veteran secondary help eliminate those mistakes and atone for a lost opportunity?
2016 Record: 9-4 (7-1, ACC)
Louisville flew out of the gates, scoring 254 points in their first four games, all blowout wins, including a 63-20 demolition of Florida State in a game Bobby Petrino later said he should've let his starters run up the score.
"Maybe I made a mistake," Petrino said in early November, frustrated at the Cardinals' No. 7 spot in the College Football Playoff rankings. "Maybe I should've left our starters out there against Florida State and scored 80."
Head Coach: Bobby Petrino (4th year, 26-13 overall)
Eight years after leaving Louisville for greener pastures, he returned in 2014 and has engineering a flawless transition to the ACC. He's 17-7 in conference play but is still chasing both an outright division title — tied Clemson for first last year but lost the head-to-head tiebreaker — and conference title.
He — and predecessor Charlie Strong — have raised expectations for the program and is now expected to get over the ACC hump and reach the College Football Playoff.
Key Returning Offensive Players
QB Lamar Jackson, RB Jeremy Smith, WR Jaylen Smith, WR Seth Dawkins, WR Reggie Bonnafon, OT Geron Christian, OT Lukayus McNeil
Louisville enters 2017 with a huge quarterback controversy: Will Lamar Jackson account for 60 touchdowns or only 51 like last year?
He may not even get to 51 again if the offensive line doesn't start playing like a Power Five unit. They allowed 47 sacks for a staggering 334 yards, worst in the FBS.
"This makes us play a little harder now that we’ve seen and heard all the criticism," junior tackle Lukayus McNeil, one of two returning starters on the line, said in early August. "I think we’ve got a chip on our shoulder now as an offensive line that we’re not going to take any crap at all. … We’re going to do a really good job this year."
Though Jackson was still effective when forced to flee the pocket, he showed how dangerous of a vertical passer he can be when given more than a half-second to throw downfield.
Lamar Jackson's 1,571-yard and 21-touchdown rushing effort overshadowed the actual running backs, including now-senior Jeremy Smith. He averaged 6.7 yards per tote, had eight rushing touchdowns on 57 carries and was a capable receiver out of the backfield. Smith missed time this summer with a broken foot but will be fine.
With their top three receiving targets gone, it's time for Jaylen Smith — who also missed spring ball with an injury similar to Smith's — to go from a moderately used (27 catches) home-run hitter to a 50-catch, blow-the-lid-off-the-secondary player. He averaged 22.2 yards per reception.
Coaches raved about former quarterback Reggie Bonnafon (now a hybrid running back/receiver) and sophomore Seth Dawkins over the offseason, saying both will be used more creatively.
"We're going to expect a lot out of Reggie Bonnafon, being able to run the football and get it to him in the passing game," Petrino said.
Key Returning Defensive Players
DE Drew Bailey, LB James Hearns, LB Stacy Thomas, CB Jaire Alexander, CB Trumaine Washington, S Zykiesis Cannon, S Chucky Williams
Louisville yielded an average of 17.9 points in nine wins and 37 in four losses. They did, however, have a respectable 55 combined sacks and turnovers, ranking in the top third in the FBS.
New coordinator Peter Sirmon gets back seven starters, including senior safety Chucky Williams in a veteran-laden secondary. The 6-foot-2, 216-pounder was one of the nation's most disruptive defensive backs at the line of scrimmage, registering 10 tackles for loss and three sacks. He also led the team with three interceptions.
"We're like the IRS, baby," junior corner Jaire Alexander said of the defensive backs. "We're coming for all that money that's in the air."
Coming for the quarterback are defensive end Drew Bailey and outside linebacker James Hearns. Hearns was shot last December — along with teammate Henry Famurewa — but did not sustain life-threatening injuries and participated in spring practice. The 6-foot-3, 249-pounder twice had 3.5 sacks over three-game stretches.
"Drew's got a really good first step," defensive line coach L.D. Scott said of Bailey, who had nine tackles for loss and two sacks in 2016. "In the run game, he's going to be tough to block one-on-one. One-on-one, he's really good. He plays with pretty good pad level, has great get-off. He's just got to develop more knowledge of the game. If he recognizes run schemes that people are going to do to him, he'll be able to be really effective."
Notable Player Losses
RB Brandon Radcliff, WR James Quick, WR Jamari Staples, TE Cole Hikutini, G Khalil Hunter, DT DeAngelo Brown, DE Devonte Fields, LB Keith Kelsey, S Josh Harvey-Clemons
Louisville had 10 players selected in the 2015 NFL Draft. They've had just three since then. While safety Josh Harvey-Clemons was their lone non-long snapper drafted last year, the Cardinals lost a lot of other big pieces on both sides of the ball.
Brandon Radcliff had 903 yards on just 138 carries (6.5 yards per carry) and Jackson's top three receiving targets are gone. James Quick and Jamari Staples both averaged 17.1 yards per catch and tight end Cole Hikutini had eight touchdowns.
Devonte Fields and DeAngelo Brown combined for 22 tackles for loss and nine games, while Keith Kelsey was their second-leading tackler who added two forced fumbles.
Notable Player Additions
WR Dez Fitzpatrick, G Cole Bentley, C Robbie Bell, LB Dorian Etheridge
Louisville's two-deep is laced with freshmen, including two offensive linemen who should start Week 1 and one linebacker who defensive players cannot stop praising.
Guard Cole Bentley is a three-star recruit from Belfry, Ky., who enrolled early and almost immediately began running with the first team. Center Robbie Bell is a redshirt freshman who is currently ahead of sophomore Nate Scheler.
Also keep an eye on redshirt freshman Dez Fitzpatrick, a 6-foot-2, 208-pounder who was the nation's 52nd-ranked receiver in 2016.
Defensively, Dorian Etheridge arrived at Louisville with little fanfare. He was a three-star linebacker from Charleston, W.V., and ranked as the 867th-best player in the 2017 class, but has turned heads as a quick study.
"You can see the difference between a guy with a high maturity level and a low one," Jaire Alexander said. "It starts in the meeting room. It starts with taking notes. You can tell how bad somebody wants it by their notes, and Dorian takes good notes."
Louisville opens the season against Purdue in Indianapolis in what might be a track meet for Lamar Jackson and the high-powered Cardinals' offense.
They open ACC play a week later at North Carolina and have their ACC home opener the following week against Clemson. With the exception of an Oct. 21 trip to Florida State, their second-half schedule is very friendly.
|Saturday, Sept. 2||vs. Purdue|
|Saturday, Sept. 9||at North Carolina|
|Saturday, Sept. 16||vs. Clemson|
|Saturday, Sept. 23||vs. Kent State|
|Saturday, Sept. 30||vs. Murray State|
|Thursday, Oct. 5||at North Carolina State|
|Saturday, Oct. 14||vs. Boston College|
|Saturday, Oct. 21||at Florida State|
|Saturday, Oct. 28||at Wake Forest|
|Saturday, Nov. 11||vs. Virginia|
|Saturday, Nov. 18||vs. Syracuse|
|Saturday, Nov. 25||at Kentucky|