Sitting around this break watching all the BCS games on TV (some uncharacteristically good ones, by the way), I haven't been able to stop myself from thinking about Cardinal Football next year So here are the things going through my head:
What's Arriving, Staying, and Going.
This week will really tell us a lot about the recruiting class, and the program in general. Whether or not the conference situation effects recruiting, whether Strong and Co. can keep building momentum in this state and in the south, and whether recent recruiting successes pay dividends in similar areas. This is the week when most of the noise will occur surrounding recruiting. As of right now, Strong has 19 recruits, including some damn good ones, in this class. This class isn't making waves nationally, nor is it the top in the conference at this point. I expect Strong will nab enough talented youngsters in the next week to put us in the top 50 (take rankings with a grain of salt, of course), and hopefully overtake Cincinnati or Pittsburgh.
The brightest spot in this discussion is what is staying. 4 out of 5 on the O line is the best stat. That line turned it on towards the end of the season, and, barring injuries, should continue to gel through spring and fall drills, as well as add strength and technique. Supposing Michaelee Harris' knee heals well, the receiving corps is stacked with Eli, Parker (breakout season, anyone?), and a better-than-most-think Andrell Smith. I'm not sure enough can be said about Dominique Brown's switch to RB. His tough, straight-up running style (ala Adrian Peterson/Darren McFadden) is a great compliment to Jeremy Wrights quick, between the tackles approach. Both will be juniors, and Brown is still learning the position. Also, Senorise Perry is a solid third RB, and somewhere out there is a speedy Corvin Lamb, though we haven't seen much of him. I'm not sure what he'll play, but Charles Gaines is flat out fast. And, Teddy. Enough said.
On the defensive side of the ball, Hakeem Smith, Calvin Pryor and Adrian Bushell should put our secondary as one of the best in the league. The linebacker position brings back most of its impressive roster, as does the D line. Both positions, with the superior coaching they have, should be even better in 2012, and a force to be reckoned with in the conference as well as nationally.
We had an extremely young team this year, and we don't lose as many seniors as we did last year (26, damn, how did we win 7?). However, we do lose some quality players who have meant a lot to this program as far as leadership and effort go. Dexter Heyman should probably head this list. He wasn't given the credit he deserved in Big East awards and Strong said so himself. Dexter was the QB of the defense. He was strong and quick, and actually pretty good sized, though a tad short for some scout's liking. He was also incredibly intelligent, and it showed every time he was interviewed. He will be tough to replace (although Strong has recruited this position well this year). I love Gregg Scruggs, DUI or not, but he missed so much time this year, that his back-ups got quality time, and they impressed. Josh Bellamy was a consistent player for his two years, and I think the bubble screen to him might have worked every play of the game. Watching him nab Teddy's second TD in Commonwealth Stadium will be an image I remember for a long time. Josh Chichester probably never was the weapon he should have been. He caught a lot of flack from fans for dropping balls, most of it justified. Victor Anderson, to my surprise, climbed into the top 10 all time rushing at UofL. After his 1,000 yard freshman season, he hit a wall with injuries and awful play calling. I thought he was a better back than he always showed, and Bilal Powell's surfacing last year possibly blocked a solid year from Anderson, but again, he was banged up. This year he played well, and he has always been a better-than-average pass catcher out of the backfield. He's a hometown hero who spurned WVU to play here, so he is special to the program and, although the remaining guys at RB are solid, I think we will miss his leadership and heart.
Our coaching staff will have little shakeups, with the offensive coordinator position being the biggest question mark. I would actually like to see Shawn Watson take that position. I thought his play calling, while not Petrino of Holgorsen eye popping, was effective. With a better run game, and some developed weapons, I think it would look even better. Hiring a big name guy with a proven, aggressive offense would get people excited, but the reality is that it takes time to learn and install these offenses. Teddy knows the one we have now, as do his teammates. I think a chance to continue to learn and improve in it is more helpful to our team than getting a fancy new one that we don't know. Our defense will be putting us in great positions to win games all season, but I still think our offense, given the chance to grow (and Maybe Watson kept it more conservative than he would like for various reasons) would definitely do the trick.
Strong is a defensive coach, his teams will be defensive teams. An efficient, 30-35 point per-game offense will win 10-11 games a season with him. I loved watching receivers sit in acres of empty real estate and streak to the end zone 20 times a game with Petrino, but we have a different set up now. Petrino's teams had a good defense one year. That was 2006, and we did well. We will always have a good defense with Strong, so let's not get out of control with the offense.
Charlie Strong Makes This Program Fully His.
I believe from watching Strong and hist staff for two years that they are legit. Solid, motivating, and genuine. At this point, most of the players on the roster Strong has recruited, or have played for him long enough to be considered "his." All the things he talks about and are said of him like, integrity, intensity, zero tolerance for anything but greatness, and love for his players and the game should be firmly established pillars of this program this year. You could see it as the season reached it's late stages. The crowd surfing in the locker room, the earth trembling sideline fist pumps on the sideline, and even the intensity at basketball games (I just about died watching him go insane at the Vanderbilt game) are all things that players notice and respond to. This is an explanation for this young team going 5-2 in conference play even after dropping games to FIU and Marshall. Vance Bedford's "get on the train speech" says it all. Strong and his staff are winners. They recruit winners, they develop winners, and that will start to show more and more in the program. I believe this year we really begin to see it.
I also expect Strong to stick around long enough to really get UofL cooking. It's unrealistic to think he will never leave, because coaches leave even the highest profile schools for various reasons. But his commitment to integrity and excellence don't seem to be monikers to hide behind on camera. He really means it. His comments about "having a good job" and wondering "what's wrong with the job I've got?" were so logical we all wondered how a football coach in today's age could say something like that. This guy is different. He worked his ass off his whole career to be turned down, and we were lucky enough to give him his first shot, and he doesn't seem to be taking that for granted. He doesn't take anything for granted. We have Strong, and we have him long enough to be a great program, that I think will sustain success longer than the few John L. and Petrino years. Believe in this guy.
Obviously, Wins and Losses.
I feel like worst, worst case scenario, we go 8-4. Before anyone starts howling in disapproval, I mean this to be the WORST imaginable result. This would mean that we don't quite have the culture change we are looking for and the talent we have is either overrated or underdeveloped, and I see neither scenario being likely. So the worst case (not double worst) is a 9-3 season. Which would entail dropping one to two in the conference, and giving one to North Carolina, at FIU (T.Y. Hilton ought to be gone) or (God help us) a likely awful UK team. A 10-2 season is what I see as being the most likely. We can't beat Pitt. I hate it, but we just don't do it often, so a loss to them on the road is possible. However, we get Cincy, South Florida, and WVU (if in the league, not sure about that) at home. Our recent home loss tendencies are something I want to see disappear as Strong puts his stamp on the program (like I said, I think he will), so call those wins. Syracuse was stuck in reverse to end the season, and I think we can win there next year. Rutgers may actually be decent next year, although they didn't have much of a QB this year, and Sanu will be taking his talents to the NFL. Still, that could be a tough game on the road (still grieving 2006).
That all sounds like 11 wins, but I still think we likely have a hiccup along the way. This paves the way to a long awaited return to the BCS. What happens there is too tough to guess at this point, but we will certainly have a shot, as we had at least a shot all year this season.
I have been a Louisville fan my whole life. I grew up close to the city, and I chose to go to school at UofL. I have seen the campus at UofL go from forgettable to a place where students want to go, and the general student support and interest in teams has definitely grown. I loved Freedom Hall, and I'll always miss the caramel corn smell (and occasional whiff of cow manure in certain hallways), but the Yum! Center has given birth to a student section that never existed in Freedom Hall. But it could be better at football games. The students could stay standing all the way up to the top rows. They could have something to wave other than their hands, and most of all, they could all be there way before kick off. This extends to the fan base in general. Even in the dominant years of the Petrino era, the football games had too much of a social gathering feel. Tailgating is great, I tailgate my ass off, but missing the kick off or first quarter is unacceptable. The stadium fills up to it's peak in the mid second quarter, and never gets back to the same level after half time, when you find large groups of 40 and 50 somethings talking about what they did last week while drinking some beers.
I don't mean to knock our fanbase too much, because it actually is impressive, considering the size of the school and the fact that it isn't THE state school (in my mind, it is), but we need to fill that stadium and create an atmosphere at least semi-resembling what Strong saw every game at Florida if we want to impress him and the elite recruits. The same really could be said for basketball, although it is definitely better in the Yum.
This was my last year at UofL. I was here for all the surprising heartbreak of Krag's first year, and was there for the 20,000 attendance game. We have something good going that I wish I could be around to see, because I watched the program really cook while I was in high school, and watched it plummet the second I arrived on campus (Stevie Johnson down the sideline in Commonwealth haunts me to this day, as does the unspeakable Syracuse loss the next week). I want people to get to the game and be loud and pay attention and enjoy what is in front of them, because I truly believe it is going to be great really soon.