HAS LOUISVILLE FIXED ITS ISSUES WITH STOPPING THE RUN
The dirty secret about Louisville's defense last year is that it wasn't all that great at stopping edge runs. The inability to do so led to overcompensation which opened holes in the middle of the defense late in the season. Through the first seven games of the season Louisville's run defense was one of the best in the nation. Then, NC State figured out that the weakside edge was susceptible to big plays. Then Dalvin Cook put on a show and everyone new how to hurt Louisville's vaunted defense. If Notre Dame hadn't given up 20 yards on sacks, the last 6 teams on Louisville's schedule would have all run for over 100 yards. It also stands out that Louisville really saw more talented backs in the back end of the schedule. Jovon Robinson was the top rated JUCO player last year. He has the speed to hit the edge and the power to break tackles.
JEREMY JOHNSON'S PATIENCE AND ACCURACY FROM THE POCKET
Gus Malzahn has typically had a mobile quarterback at his disposal while at Auburn. Johnson has garnered comparisons to Cam Newton due to his size and I really don't know what else. Johnson is much more of a Teddy Bridgewater type of player than he is Newton. Johnson prefers to stand tall in the pocket and deliver. He is plenty mobile but it is not at all his best ability. When Nick Marshall was suspended for the first half of the opener against Arkansas last year Johnson played extremely well and Malzahn completely abandoned the read option aspects of his offense. Johnson was in the gun each play and they didn't even rely on play action to help keep the defense off balance. What they did keep was the quick pass philosophies they always have in the offense. Quick slants, swing screens, tunnel screens, and skinny posts were called and Johnson made quick reads and delivered catchable passes. He also showed the ability to progress through his reads. Johnson doesn't have a ton of game experience but Malzahn has gotten him into a lot of games in his career. Todd Grantham will have his hands full trying to prepare for a guy that really changes what Auburn likes to do on offense.
WILL LOUISVILLE'S OFFENSIVE LINE PLAY IMPROVE EVEN WITH THE LOSS OF TWO NFL DRAFT PICKS
John Miller, Jamon Brown, and Jake Smith were mainstays on the Louisville offensive line for the last few years. With Miller and Brown being drafted and Smith fighting for a roster spot in Cincinnati, one has to wonder how this offensive line improves in year two under Bobby Petrino. Last year we heard a lot about Charlie Strong not doing so well when it came to recruiting offensive linemen and whether you agree or not, year two sees Louisville with 13 offensive linemen on the roster that signed with Petrino and his staff. With JUCO transfers and high school talent it's very fair to expect this staff to be able to put five guys on the field that understand (and fit) the system.
CAN AUBURN RELOAD ON OFFENSE?
Top teams tend to have it a little easier to replace starters due to their recruiting abilities. Auburn will be relying on that a little bit this year. Johnson is being heralded as a potential upgrade at quarterback, but the Tigers will have to replace big play receiver, Sammie Coates as well as their top two running backs. Throw in the loss of two starters on the offensive line and Auburn has some question marks from a personnel standpoint on offense.
The offensive line shouldn't be much of an issue for the Tigers as they have a couple of guys that have been starters in the SEC to fill the spots of the guys that went off to the NFL. The center spot is settled, but replacing a player like Reece Dismukes isn't easy at all. The other two spots on the line will be filled by guys that have started at some point before for Auburn. Jovon Robinson and Roc Thomas will likely be the running backs that see the field the most for Auburn. Robinson has a very impressive size/speed ratio and Thomas has received some praise from Gus Malzhan.
The receivers are another story for the Tigers. Duke Williams is one of the best receivers in the country but he's been in Malzahn's doghouse all offseason and as of last week he was still running with the second team offense. I don't expect Malzahn to let Williams miss more than a few series (if that) but that could lead to Johnson being forced to work without the top two receivers from last season. Ricardo Louis is a veteran guy that has made huge plays in the past, but there's not a lot of proven depth behind him and Williams. Melvin Ray, Marcus Davis, and maybe a freshman or two will have to step up to be that third (or second) option for Johnson. Auburn's offense has been getting a lot of love this offseason, but they do have some question marks at the skill positions that could be interesting.
LOUISVILLE'S DEFENSE SHOULD BE BETTER THAN LAST YEAR
Should being the key word there. What will define "better" for Louisville's defense? Is it holding teams to less yardage? Forcing more turnovers? More sacks? I don't personally think the defense has improved on paper but I do think that the key players will be vastly improved even after a very good first year in Grantham's system. James Burgess, Keith Kelsey, DeAngelo Brown, Sheldon Rankins, and Keith Brown will make it very hard for teams to do much of anything to the strong side of the field. All had really impressive seasons a year ago (With the exception of Keith Brown) and I can see them all taking another step forward this year. Throw in the additions via transfer and at the very least you're looking at a wash at every other position group. The big question that I think you have to ask is if this defense can force 30 turnovers again. Can a completely new secondary pick off 21 passes? Can the 31.5 tackles for loss and 16.5 sacks by the three seniors in the front seven be replaced? I say that the defense "should" be better because this defense should be more experienced with the returning starters and the added experience of the Georgia transfers.