If you want to give your team the best chance to win, you have to get the ball in the hands of your best player as much as possible. That won't be hard for Louisville head coach Scott Satterfield with QB Malik Cunningham returning for his senior year. Cunningham is one of college football's most dynamic offensive weapons, accounting for 3,975 yards and 39 combined touchdowns while carrying the Cardinals to a six-win season last year.
Entering his fourth year, I fully expect Cunningham to take his game to the next level as he has already shown signs of his experience catching up with his game-changing physical ability. Cunningham ended his season with five games, including Clemson and Kentucky, where he had 10 passing touchdowns compared to only one interception. Louisville has a long way to go on defense, but its offense should be firing on all cylinders to start the season. Louisville's win total is currently at 6.5 games, and here's why the first month will be crucial to the Cardinals getting to seven wins.
Can Satterfield squeeze seven wins out of Louisville's schedule?
Build confidence early and brace yourself for the end. Louisville runs into a buzzsaw in their final three games against Clemson, NC State and their rival Kentucky. If the Cardinals improve on last year's six-win season, they will have to do most of the damage in the first two months. Nevertheless, I like their chances of getting out of September with three wins. They should be able to handle Syracuse in the opener as 3.5-point favorites but are in a tough spot the following week, trekking to UCF in their second straight road game. Then they come home for two winnable games against Florida State and South Florida.
Three key games will determine whether they start the season 6-2 and put themselves in a position to get that seventh win against James Madison in early November. Louisville has to come away with two wins in those three games, which are all at home.
Week 3 vs. Florida State
Louisville lit up FSU's defense for 31 first-half points in last year's win. Now the Cardinals get the Seminoles in their home opener in a "Red Out" at Cardinal Stadium under the lights on national TV.
Week 7 vs. Pittsburgh
Here's the most likely loss of the three. However, Pitt's offense will suffer without the trio of OC Mark Whipple, QB Kenny Pickett and WR Jordan Addison. The Panthers will likely return to a physical team whose conservative approach has given away winnable games in the past. This could be one of them if Cunningham can build a big lead early.
Week 8 vs. Wake Forest
Wake suffered terrible news that QB Sam Hartman is out indefinitely, with an unknown return date. Louisville lost a 37-34 heartbreaker last year in which Wake got a controversial free-play FG at the end of the half. Cunningham carved up the Wake defense for over 300 passing yards as the Cardinals outgained the Demon Deacons, 517-501. It's a very winnable game for Louisville at home in what should be another wild shootout.
Louisville has had strong momentum in the betting market, and even though the number has moved to 6.5, it's still a solid bet at the current odds (+105). All signs are pointing to a monster season from Malik Cunningham. Louisville returns four of five starters from a dominant offensive line that powered the best rushing attack in the conference. They will only be better with another year of continuity.
The Cardinals were close to breaking through last season with three losses by a field goal or less. I'm banking on another year of experience pushing this team over the edge. The defense will still be below average, but their aggression in the transfer portal should lead to an improved secondary. They don't need to be an elite-level defense. They only have to get some key stops and put the ball back in the hands of their best player. If that happens, we are cashing this over in early November. I am more than happy to get my money down on an offense of this potential.
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