From here on in the preview pieces for the this seasons upcoming games will have a slightly less farcical approach than previous editions. Fact of the matter is that these are Big East games, and as such they require a slightly more gravitas filled approach.
This is the second year in the Charlie Strong era at Louisville. In most cases a coaches second year at a school is going to be a good one. I am not going to explain in depth why that is the case, I will just point to a clearer understanding of the coaches expectations for the players and a better understanding on the part of the coaches on how each player ticks. To further illustrate the point in the last decade 4 coaches have won national titles in their second year at their various programs. So that's the trend. But I think that the circumstances for Louisville this year will make it hard for the Cards to make a big jump from 7 wins to 10 or 11 in Strong's second year.
Most of the issues for this team are going to stem from a lack of experience, and to a lesser extent at lack of depth on the offensive side of the ball. The defense should be excellent. The front 7 returns virtually intact, the linebackers in particular should be among the best groups in the conference. The defensive line isn't particularly deep, but they do have Greg Scruggs who can play every one of the D-Line positions in a pinch.
The last few years have not been kind to the Cardinals on offense. By almost any measure you want to use the Cards had dropped off a on offense. Steve Kragthorpe might have had a reputation for offense from his days at Tulsa. He could never make it work at Louisville. The stat that I find to be the most useful in evaluating past performance is Yards Per Play, primarily because it is the greatest measure of down to down consistency. The UofL YPP numbers for the last 5 seasons.
The 2006 offense was arguably the best in the country that year. As a general rule any YPP over 7 is great. But you can see the drop off as the Krathorpe ear progressed. Last year the Cards fielded a surprisingly, to me at least, effective offense. They finished in the top half of the conference in all of the major statistical categories. #1 in Rushing Offense, #2 in Scoring, #3 in Total Offense, and #4 in passing. The most surprising thing about the Cardinals last year was just how effective they were on offense after three years of Increasingly diminishing returns under Steve Kragthorpe.
The preseason assumption was that UofL was going to be a true spread team. After all Mike Sanford spent two seasons at Utah working for Urban Meyer as he was just starting to get things rolling in terms of his conception of the offense. He ran the spread at UNLV during his five years there, but the emphasis was on the passing game for the Rebels. Last year with the Cardinals they pounded away at people on the ground. They had a big experienced offensive line and a couple of talented backs in Bilal Powell and Victor Anderson. So there was at least something for Sanford to hang his hat on. But I don't think anyone expected Powell to had the year he had. I mean shit he rushed for more yards in 2010 then he had in his other three seasons combined.
This year the dynamic on offense will be completely different. For a start the big physical offensive line is almost completely gone. Last year that offensive line had 77 career starts on the books heading into the season. This year? 25, and Center Mario Benavides owns every last one of them. Additionally Bilal Powell took his superhuman strength to the NFL. Those are major, major issues for the Cardinals this year.
The reason that those are issues is the quarterback is a huge question mark for the Cardinals this year. There are just two options under consideration. One would instantly become the shortest starting QB at the FBS level, but is a fan favorite because of his sunny disposition and his muse status to the perpetrators of great photoshop work. These are undeniably laudable qualities, but they say little about Will Steins ability to you know, win Football games. The other option is Teddy Bridgewater the magnificently named and spectacularly hyped QB from Miami Northwestern. Bridgewater has as much pure talent as any QB at Louisville since Brian Brohm. But he is a true freshman.
There are some weapons on the outside in Josh Bellamy and (finally) TE Josh Chichester. In support are a slew of talented young players. But I don't think they have a true difference maker at WR who can make life easy for either of the QB candidates.
In a perfect world whoever wins the starting job between Bridgewater and Stein would have a ball controlling running game to rely on. I doubt very much that the running game this year will be anywhere near as good as last years. That's not a knock on probable starter Victor Anderson who is certainly a capable back. But (to me) he doesn't have the skill set to take what looks like the worst offensive line in the conference and make it look good, or even average.
As all Bearcats try to forget daily, Charile Strong will always field a competitive defense. He called games for more than a decade for Meyer and Holtz. He knows what he is doing, and is last year was kind of the perfect example of it. If anything the Cardinals defenses under Kragthorpe regressed to an even higher degree than the offense.
Defensive Yards Per Play Allowed
First year out of the box without the ideal personnel for his scheme or much at all in the way of depth and Strong fields the best defense in five seasons. So yeah, Strong knows defense.
This year there is a little bit more depth (good), a little more experience (good), and a clearer understanding of Strong's schemes (very good). In my mind the linebackers are the strength of the team. The defensive line should be better still this year. As I mentioned before Greg Scruggs versatility is a major boon for a defense that zone blitzes as much as Strong prefers to.
The weakness? Corner without question. Darius Ashley was a probable starter at one spot before he was dismissed from the team for his second DUI in a year last month. The safeties are good, I really like Shenard Holton in particular who is a solid tackler in run support and a guy who delivers devastating blows to any receiver who crosses his path. The problem is that with the issues at corner either Horton or Hakeem Smith, who is no slouch himself might be forced into a more reserved role. Then again Strong, unlike some people, knows that you run your defense regardless of who's out there and deal with the consequences as they come.
This should be a strength for the Cardinals. They return their Punter (Chris Philpott) and their Kicker (Chris Philpott) so they should be well above average in the kicking game. Though they lose dangerous Punt Returner Doug Beaumont Jeremy Wright should pick up the slack. He was an excellent kick returner last year and should take over the PR duties this season.
The Final Word
Upward Trajectory. I said at the top that I think it's going to be hard for the Cards to drastically improve on last seasons record. In the end the issues with the offensive line and the uncertainty at QB are going to make it a grind for U of L to score enough to win big. But Strong has clearly rescued the program from the Kragthorpe death spiral and has it pointed upwards once more with his recruiting.