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Team countdown: No. 26 Louisville

West Virginia was a Big East tri-champ with Cincinnati and Louisville last season, and would've been the prohibitive favorite this season. But with WVU gone to the Big 12, the mantle of Big East preseason favorite belongs to Louisville.

Louisville loses only five full-time starters, and there is a lot of young talent on both sides of the ball for third-year coach Charlie Strong.

The Cardinals relied heavily on their defense last season. One reason is that Strong is a former defensive coordinator. Another is that numerous young players on offense never developed a rhythm. The defense looks good again; the difference this season is that the offense has a chance to be solid, as well.

The particulars

Last season: 7-6 overall, 5-2 in Big East (tied for 1st in league)
Coach: Charlie Strong (14-12, 3rd season)
Returning starters (minimum 7 starts last season): Offense (6) – C Mario Benavides, QB Teddy Bridgewater, WR Michaelee Harris, T Alex Kupper, G John Miller, G Jake Smith. Defense (6) – LB Preston Brown, CB Adrian Bushell, T Brandon Dunn, CB Andrew Johnson, FS Calvin Pryor, SS Hakeem Smith. Special teams (0) – None.
Fast fact: The Cardinals need to get better at home. They have lost more games at home under Strong (seven) than they have on the road (four). And over the past five seasons, Louisville has lost 15 home games and 17 road games.

Offense

The Cardinals didn't run the ball that well last season, ranking 93rd nationally (and fifth in the league) at 121.5 yards per game. Leading rusher Victor Anderson is gone, but there is talent at tailback. Juniors Dominique Brown (a converted quarterback), Senorise Perry (a converted cornerback) and Jeremy Wright and redshirt freshman Corvin Lamb will contend for the starting job; all four could get carries this season.

Those guys will run behind a line that returns four starters, with C Mario Benavides the standout. Benavides, who might be the best offensive lineman in the Big East, will be a four-year starter for the Cardinals. G John Miller was one of the best true freshmen offensive linemen in the nation last season.

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Sophomore QB Teddy Bridgewater has a strong arm and a deep group of receivers. (National Football Post)

Sophomore G Jake Smith and senior T Alex Kupper are the other returning starters up front. Big sophomore Jamon Brown (6 feet 6/337 pounds), who played guard last season, likely will be the other starting tackle.

The linemen's main priority will be to keep sophomore QB Teddy Bridgewater upright. Louisville quarterbacks were sacked 41 times last season, and that number needs to decrease by at least a third. Bridgewater has mobility, but he is at his best when he drops back and lets it fly. He started 10 games as a true freshman last season, throwing for 2,129 yards and 14 TDs. But he also threw 12 interceptions, and that number has to drop. Coaches are confident he will be much more comfortable in the offense this season.

One reason for his comfort level is that two of his best receivers, sophomores Michaelee Harris and Eli Rogers, played with Bridgewater in high school at powerhouse Miami Northwestern. (Lamb also is a Northwestern alum.) Those two should be part of a deep and productive receiving corps. Rogers led the team with 41 receptions last season, while Harris had 37; they combined for three TD receptions. Sophomore DeVante Parker had only 18 catches, but six went for scores and he appears to be a rising star. Seniors Scott Radcliff and Andrell Smith and junior Damian Copeland also should be part of the rotation.

Defense

The line and secondary look fine; the one concern is at linebacker.

While T Brandon Dunn is the only returning starter up front, the Cardinals are deep at tackle and end. Dunn, Jamaine Brooks and Roy Philon give the Cardinals a solid trio at tackle, while B.J. Butler, B.J. DuBose, Lorenzo Mauldin and Marcus Smith form a solid quartet at end. Louisville had 33 sacks last season and should have an even better pass rush this season.

A guy to keep an eye on is sophomore Deiontrez Mount, whom coaches plan to use in a hybrid end/linebacker role this fall. He started five games at end last season, basically on athleticism alone. But once he understands the nuances of his position, he could be a double-digit sack guy.

The one returning starter at linebacker is physical junior Preston Brown, a 260-pounder who is tough against the run. Senior Daniel Brown (Louisville has six players named Brown, none of whom are related) started in 2010 but lost his job last season; he should start again this fall and provide a big-play element.

The secondary was a huge question going into last season, but that unit should be a team strength this season behind CB Adrian Bushell, who began his career at Florida, and SS Hakeem Smith, a junior who has started every game in his college career. CB Andrew Johnson and FS Calvin Pryor also are returning starters. CB Terrell Floyd should see a lot of time at nickelback.

Special teams

The Cardinals will have a new kicker and a new punter. Redshirt freshman John Wallace, who made a 52-yard field goal in the spring game, should be the kicker, and sophomore Ryan Johnson is expected to be the punter.

Bushell and Wright are good kick returners, but the Cardinals could use an upgrade at punt returner.

Louisville's punt coverage was incredibly good last season: The Cardinals allowed 7 yards total on 13 returns. Conversely, the kickoff coverage was awful; the Cardinals ranked 116th in the nation, allowing 24.8 yards per return. That's an embarrassing number for a team with this many good athletes.

Schedule

There are some tough games, but every game is winnable and there are just two road games after Oct. 13.

Louisville opens with three consecutive home games, then plays three in a row on the road, including games against Sun Belt preseason favorite FIU (which won at Louisville last season) and a league showdown with Pitt. That outcome will go a long way toward determining whether Louisville indeed wins the league crown.

Overview

Strong has done a good job in a short time; it has helped that the league as a whole isn't that tough.

He has mined his recruiting roots at Florida to bring in a number of good players. Three-quarters of the starting secondary, a starting linebacker, half the starting defensive line, the starting quarterback, two starting receivers and at least one starting offensive lineman are Florida natives. In addition, two of the top four tailbacks also are Floridians.

Strong and his staff also have changed the team's mindset. This team believes in itself again and plays with a certain swagger. That will pay off this season, and in the future.

The Cardinals will win at least eight games; an eight-win season, though, frankly would be disappointing. The Cardinals should win nine or 10 and finish the season in a BCS bowl. The last time they went to a BCS bowl was in 2006 – and they lost their coach (Bobby Petrino) soon thereafter. If Louisville is in the BCS this season, you can bet some bigger schools will come after Strong.

The recruiting side

Average recruiting ranking for past five years: 50th nationally
The buzz: Strong has shown off his recruiting abilities in Florida since he took over at Louisville, but with the Class of 2012, he showed everyone he also has the ability to go into new areas of the country. This was definitely proven when the Cardinals grabbed top LB Nick Dawson out of North Carolina. Dawson has the potential to make an immediate impact for Louisville and should be a key contributor for years to come. Joining Dawson at linebacker is Keith Brown, who was one of the top linebacker prospects in Florida. Along the defensive line, the Georgia duo of Sheldon Rankins and Larry Jefferson have the potential to add immediate depth, while a strong group of offensive linemen, led by Abraham Garcia and T.C. Klusman, should solidify the position in the coming years. At the skill positions, RB Brandon Radcliff (of Miami Columbus), WR Brandon Snell (of Miami Carol City) and QB Will Gardner have game-breaking abilities. – Mike Farrell, Rivals.com

Breakthrough player

WR DeVante Parker. Parker had 18 catches last season as a true freshman, with six of them going for touchdowns. He is big (6-3/205) and athletic, and look for him to become a more physical receiver this season. He had some trouble getting off press coverage last season, but that should not be the case this fall. He has the ability to go deep but also is effective on crossing patterns.

For more on Louisville throughout the season, check out CardinalSports.com

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