Team: Louisville Cardinals
2012 W-L: 11-2 (5-2 in the Big East)
Head Coach: Charlie Strong (25-14; fourth season)
Returning Starters: 14 (5 Offense, 9 Defense)
Just to get this out of the way first: the Louisville Cardinals will not be playing in the ACC until 2014, but obviously we’re covering them anyway. In their first and only season in the newly-formed American Athletic Conference, the Cards are the league’s best team by a mile and have a very real chance at going unbeaten. Their star junior quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater, also has a very good shot at winning the Heisman Trophy. This all we know. But what we’re unsure of is the effect of those pressures on this team’s performance. Despite being the best team in the then-Big East last season, Louisville still managed to lose two conference games and escape several close calls versus overmatched opponents out of conference. So despite their blend of youth and experience, and a huge victory over Florida in the Sugar Bowl, there’s still a lot of uncertainty around this team, believe it or not.
One area where we can be virtually certain about the Cardinals is the quarterback position, though. Bridgewater more than proved himself to be the real deal in 2012, putting up over 3,700 passing yards to go with 27 TDs and just eight interceptions — capped by another strong performance against the Gators, one of the country’s top defenses. He’s been in the system long enough that he knows it like the back of his hand. The only concern could be his offensive line, which says goodbye to center Mario Benavides and also installs a sophomore, Abraham Garcia, at the all-important left tackle spot. Overall size across the board isn’t great, but Bridgwater’s agile enough to allude tacklers (despite needing to add a few pounds to his 193-pound frame if he wants to be able to absorb a few more hits).
Lucky for Bridgewater, his supporting playmakers should also be able to bail him out when necessary. Last year’s backfield was racked with injuries, so off the bat, it’ll be a huge help to have both Dominique Brown and Senorise Perry healthy. While Brown missed all of last season, he managed over 500 yards rushing in 2011 and Perry had over 700 last season himself. The two players have completely opposite rushing styles, and that could help improve upon 2012′s paltry 122 yards per game on the ground. At wideout, Bridgewater will have his pick of talented targets, as DeVante Parker and Damian Copeland alone combined for 90 catches and 12 touchdowns. Ball distribution was a bigger key last year though, as 11 different players caught 10 or more balls in their 24th-ranked passing offense, and it will be again if they’re hoping to achieve similar success in that regard.