AAC preview: Louisville

The Sports Xchange
The SportsXchange

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The Louisville Cardinals are reaping the residuals of their actions last season, but it is a careful-what-you-wish for proposition. High expectations offer an easy path to disappointment.
Basically, they now know the answer to the questions, what happens when you win a share of the last Big East Conference title and then pummel one of the Southeastern Conference's big boys in the Sugar Bowl?
Answer: You start the season No. 9, as Louisville is doing in both polls. And with 19 starters returning, including arguably the nation's top quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater, the Cardinals just might be good enough to run the table in their first and only season in the American Athletic Conference.
They picked up 28 of 30 first place votes in the AAC preseason poll and don't appear to have but two truly dangerous games all year -- a Sept. 14 visit to in-state rival Kentucky and a Dec. 5 season-ender at Cincinnati.
"We have to improve and get to that next level," coach Charlie Strong said. "When you have a football team like we do, you welcome (expectations). You'd rather have it this way than the other way. . . . Either we're going to grow and continue to improve or we're going to remain the same team and be full of ourselves."
For Louisville to live up to its sky-high expectations, go unbeaten and perhaps play for the BCS championship, it has to do two things. First, it must improve its shaky run defense. Secondly, it has to fill holes in the only area affected by graduation, the offensive line.
And, oh yes, win every game.
Last year, the Cardinals consistently failed to stop the rush, permitting 148 yards per game and an average of 4.3 yards per carry. Three of their top four tacklers were defensive backs, which simply can't happen if a defense wants to be even good, much less dominant.
Bridgewater experienced good protection for most of 2012 behind a line anchored by center Mario Benavides and left tackle Alex Kupper. Both are gone, leaving it up to returnees such as Jake Smith, who's moving from guard to center, to keep Bridgewater's Heisman Trophy hopes upright.
"You expect so much from him, being a leader," Strong said of Bridgewater. "Teddy has done an outstanding job, but he has to get help."
Bridgewater was selected to the Manning Award watch list, which contains the nation's top returning quarterbacks. Bridgewater isn't conducting a Heisman Trophy campaign per se, but he's going to be plenty of attention in that regard if he plays like he did last year, when he hit on 68.5 percent of his passes for 3,718 yards and a 27-8 touchdown-interception ratio. He's also on three other preseason watch lists, including the Maxwell Award.
In an interesting development, former Auburn star running back Michael Dyer announced Aug. 2 that he would play at Louisville, making an already scary offense even more difficult to stop. Dyer hasn't played since the 2011 season due to a variety of legal and personal issues, but is eligible immediately. Dyer was the MVP of the 2012 BCS championship game, when his rushing on the final drive enabled Auburn to beat Oregon with a walk-off field goal.
Another interesting newcomer is wide receiver James Quick, the most heralded recruit in program history. Quick turned down Urban Meyer and Ohio State and stuck with his hometown school. Quick caught 85 passes at Trinity High for 1,413 yards and 16 TDs as a senior, and also ran a commonwealth-record 20.94 seconds in the 200-meter dash.
SPOTLIGHT ON SEPTEMBER: The Cardinals' run-up to AAC play starts with a Sunday game on Sept. 1 against Ohio, giving Bridgewater a nationally-televised forum to start the Heisman campaign he's not worried about. After a walkover six days later against FCS opponent Eastern Kentucky, Louisville makes the short trip to Lexington on the 14th to face in-state rival Kentucky. Then it hosts Florida International on the 21st before taking an open date prior to the conference opener Oct. 5 at Temple.
KEYS TO SUCCESS: If the line can adequately replace its two best players from a year ago, C Mario Benavides and LT Alex Kupper, who is going to stop this offense? Bridgewater is a great decision-maker and has a terrific receiving corps at his disposal. DeVante Parker, Damian Copeland and Eli Rogers can get open against anyone, and freshman James Quick offers more speed. Adding Dyer to a running game that already boasts Senorise Perry and Dominique Brown is a case of the rich getting richer. The defensive line should generate a better pass rush this fall, and the secondary has physical players throughout the lineup.
AREAS OF CONCERN: Moving Jake Smith to center from guard fills one hole, but it means the line's right side will be inexperienced. G Kamran Joyer started a few games last year, but Abraham Garcia is raw. Can the D-line become tougher to block at the point of attack, enabling the Cardinals to stop the running game with consistency? Three of the defense's top four tacklers last year were defensive backs, and that should never happen for a good team. Louisville also needs more consistent play from its kick coverage units, which were simply dreadful at times in 2012.

--Team correspondents for The Sports Xchange contributed material for this story.

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