LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) -- - Charlie Strong has brought respectability back to Louisville in his first two seasons. Now there's hope he can return the Cardinals to their greatest heights in year three.
Strong has rebuilt the Cardinals after Bobby Petrino bolted for the NFL followed by the Steve Kragthrope era. Louisville is the preseason pick to win the Big East, and Strong is embracing those lofty expectations. He's telling his Cardinals to work hard to reach outsiders' lofty predictions.
"Now all of a sudden you've been picked to go win the conference. Guys, then I'm sorry. That's just the way it is," Strong said. "That's who we are right now. That's what people think of you. So if you someone thinks that high of you, then let's go show them. Let's go work like we want to get to that level."
Center Mario Benavides has seen the changes firsthand, starting every game as a redshirt freshman for the 2009 team that finished 4-8. Now a senior and a candidate for the Outland Trophy for the nation's top interior lineman, he said the energy level of both players and fans is palpable.
"I'd be lying to you if I said it's not a little bit of a different feel," Benavides said. "There seems to be a little bit more buzz around the program. But you have to go through the tough times to potentially see some good times."
Strong says top teams are "good down the middle" at quarterback, center, nose tackle, middle linebacker and safety. By that measure, he could have the makings of a contender. Louisville has Benavides and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, last year's Big East rookie of the year, on offense with All-Big East safety Hakeem Smith as the defensive anchor.
Juniors Brandon Dunn and Preston Brown return as starters at nose tackle and linebacker, respectively. Brown had 84 tackles that ranked second on team, while Smith expected to shift to inside to fill the hole created when last year's top tackler, Dexter Heyman, graduated.
Youth with its uncertainty and exuberance could be Louisville's biggest challenge. Louisville has just nine seniors compared to thirteen sophomores who earned at least one start as freshmen last season. One of the sophomores, wide receiver Michaelee Harris, tore the ACL in his left knee last week and will miss the season.
"You're looking around the room and there's not many (seniors) at many positions," Strong said. "So you're hoping the guys that have played that they've played enough where they continue to grow. They mature and they grow up and now the leadership can come not only from a senior but from someone else."
Defensive coordinator Vance Bedford said early signs show the team is focused on football and not what others think. Still, coaches don't know how the youngsters will react Sunday when the Cardinals host rival Kentucky in the opener.
"When the lights come on, people start cheering and you hear 'My Old Kentucky Home,' you don't know what's going to happen. They might start crying. I might needs some Pampers," Bedford quipped. "I don't know what they are going to do."
After becoming the school's first true freshman to start at quarterback since 1976, Bridgewater is growing on the field and in stature. He's now up to 222 pounds, up from 180 when he entered college and the 195 he was at in last year's Belk Bowl loss. He said the Cardinals worry about what it takes to earn another BCS game, not what people say about them.
"We just think about like coach Strong always says, what people were saying two years ago," Bridgewater said. "How no one would have predicted this university, this football team, to be in the running for the conference championship. We try not to think of those expectations at all."
The Cardinals may be able to keep them out of their minds Sunday as they focus on their rivalry with the Wildcats (5-7). Kentucky had taken four in a row in the series before Louisville won 24-17 on the road last Sept. 17, getting two touchdown passes from Bridgewater.
Louisville will be facing a talented but young Kentucky squad, with 26 players being sophomores or redshirt freshmen. None is more important than sophomore quarterback Maxwell Smith, who threw for 819 yards with four touchdowns and four interceptions in eight games last year.
"I understand things so much better now," Smith said. "I feel more accurate, and I'm more confident in myself. I had all these reps with the (first-stringers) in the spring and the fall and it was really beneficial for me.
"Coach (Randy) Sanders (offensive coordinator) and I have done a lot of one-on-one things and I feel much better than I did last year."
Kentucky surpassed 200 yards passing twice in 2011 and averaged 135.6 yards through the air - seventh worst in the country.
Smith will likely look for receiver La'Rod King often as he tries to improve upon that number. The senior caught seven touchdowns and had 598 yards receiving last year - both team highs.
Kentucky's youth could cause some serious growing pains on defense, where the Wildcats lost players that accounted for 58.2 percent of their tackles, 50.0 percent of the sacks and 86.7 percent of interceptions last season.