2011 record: 7-6 overall, 5-2 in Big East (1st-tie)
2011 postseason: Belk Bowl (31-24 loss to North Carolina State)
2011 final AP/coaches’ ranking: unranked/unranked
Head coach: Charlie Strong (14-13 overall, 14-12 in two seasons at Louisville)
Offensive coordinator: Shawn Watson (second season at Louisville, second as OC)
2011 offensive rankings: 93rd rushing offense (121.5 ypg); 74th passing offense (211.5 ypg); 103rd total offense (333 ypg); 98th scoring offense (21.9 ppg)
Returning offensive starters: seven
Defensive coordinator: Vance Bedford (third season at Louisville, third as DC)
2011 defensive rankings: 10th rushing defense (100.5 ypg); 68th passing defense (227.4 ypg); 23rd total defense (327.9 ypg); 17th scoring defense (20.1 ppg)
Returning defensive starters: seven
Location: Louisville, Ky.
Stadium: Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium (55,000; FieldTurf)
Last league title: 2011 (co-champs with Cincinnati and West Virginia)
2011 statistics: [view]
Every year I have a feeling that I’m rating a team way too low — see Auburn, 2010 — and this year the Cardinals are the team I simply, for whatever reason, couldn’t pull the trigger on a higher ranking and will likely regret it at season’s end. With 14 starters returning from a very youthful squad and West Virginia leaving for the Big 12, the ‘Ville is clearly the class of the Big East in 2012. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who started as a true freshman last season, is a superstar in training and in possession of a ceiling as high as any player at his position in the country. A defense that was well above average is expected to see nothing but improvement with seven returning starters.
Two of the first three games of the new season are home contests against Kentucky and North Carolina, while road trips to defending Conference USA champ Southern Miss and Big East rival (for now) Pittsburgh as well as a home game against USF await in late September/mid-October. For a team as young as the Cardinals will be yet again, it could be a rough start to the season — or just the seasoning the squad needs to go back-to-back in the Big East.
Last season, West Virginia was the clear preseason front-runner in the Big East. This year, it’s Louisville. How that status as the hunted instead of the hunter is handled will be a fascinating dynamic to watch play out, especially, again, given the baby-faced makeup of the roster.
Make-or-break game: vs. USF, Oct. 20
I agree with the esteemed Phil Steele: USF should be the surprise team in the Big East and may loom as the Cardinals’ biggest obstacle to a conference title. The ‘Ville traveled to the Bulls and came out with a 10-point win in the regular-season finale that helped land the Cardinals a co-Big East title. Another win, this one at home, over the experienced Bulls would go a long ways toward securing another title.
Heisman hopeful: quarterback Teddy Bridgewater
While 14 touchdowns vs. 12 interceptions doesn’t exactly scream Heisman candidate, there’s no denying the talent Bridgewater possesses and how much potential the sophomore has still yet to tap into. Charlie Strong and his coaching staff did a masterful job easing the true freshman into his role as a first-year starter, never allowing Bridgewater to throw more than 30 passes in a single game until the Belk Bowl loss to North Carolina State that saw the ball in the air 43 times. This year, however, expect to see more — much more? — of the offensive load to shift to Bridgewater’s right arm, which as a result should lead to a vast statistical improvement.