Let’s start with The Truth.
The University of Louisville Cardinals football schedule in this transition season is not exactly a recipe for grannie’s beloved chocolate banana meringue pie.
The opener is on the road against consensus preseason #1 Roll Tide, defending CFP champs and in the argument for crafting the most dominant run of campaigns in the sport . . . ever. Not to mention that ‘Bama’s coach is among the handful in the argument as best . . . ever.
The Cards also face conference rival, preseason #2 Clemson on the road. The Tigers feature a front defensive four, heralded as the best DL . . . ever. Did I mention the game is in Death Valley?
U of L’s league slate includes a crossover battle with the nation’s hardest team to prepare for, Georgia Tech. Plus meet and greets with consensus preseason Top 25 Florida State, BC, NC State, Wake Forest and Syracuse. All are members of the ACC Atlantic, dubbed by The World Wide Leader as the 3d toughest division in college pigskin this year, behind SEC W, and B10 E.
Plus this reality: Bobby Petrino 2.2 commences, at least one guy’s opinion, with the most critical campaign of either of the mentor’s reigns as Cardinal coach. I sense he’s feeling a bit of pressure, if not exactly on a hot seat.
(You can read a recap of versions 1.0, 2.0 and 2.1 here.)
People who remember wideouts J.R. Russell and Harry Douglas finding themselves consistently open with no opposing DBs within five yards in any direction wonder why that’s not been replicated in BP Era II?
For one, the competition has been significantly tougher. The ACC is a cut way above C-USA.
Still, there are murmurs nonetheless. Some dare to ask, has Bobby lost his mojo, after all he had a Heisman winner at QB for the last 2 1/2 seasons?
What happened in 2016, when the team fell apart, losing the last three? Why wasn’t the coach able to get his charges ready for Houston, then pull them back together in the wake of that devastating loss?
And, what about those inexplicable setbacks to lesser league rivals last season? Can it really be blamed entirely on the inept fellow running the D, whose guys fell forty spots in the national rankings for scoring defense?
Though Lamar Jackson’s numbers were good, didn’t it seem like he should have improved more? That there should not have been so many turnovers?
Those queries aside, the question heard most often this offseason: Can Louisville be as good with Lamar Jackson gone?
The answer to that seems simple.
Of course, yes, the Cards can.
In two full seasons with a heralded Heisman winner directing the attack full time, U of L went 9-4 and 8-5. Winning just short of two out of every three battles is respectable, but hardly an insurmountable goal.
Given the promise of Petrino 1.0, and the aspirations fostered by Howard Schnellenberger’s iconic proclamation in the Days of Yore, those numbers remain somewhat disappointing.
Yes, every fanbase believes national contention is within reach. It’s time to find out if a continued U of L climb to the upper echelons of the sport is doable? Or if 9-4 or 8-5 on a regular basis, with a better season every now and again is the norm?
The 2018 campaign should provide at the very least clues.
Here’s the Q & A:
Will Bobby P be his old self with LJ gone?
There are those who believe, myself included, that Bobby Petrino was never really able to best utilize the unique talent of Lamar Jackson. That the QB’s abilities, while unbelievable, didn’t mesh with Petrino’s preferred systems. That there was a disconnect of sorts.
That Puma Pass, a much more highly regarded and sought after recruit than his predecessor, is a better fit for BP. That Louisville can continue an upward mobility with a system with which the coach has more comfort, and a QB who will work within it.
Will the defense improve?
Because of Brian VanGorder. There are those who believe, myself included, despite what Brian Kelly might have thought when he made the newest Cardinal on the staff the scapegoat in the middle of a horrid Irish season, the new DC is an obvious upgrade.
The guy’s a former Broyles Award winner. He has extensive experience coaching at the highest levels of the sport, college and pro.
And, his predecessor, was, let’s be gentle, a truly horrid coach. Guys like AJ Dillon will not be able anymore to casually shrug off a potential Cardinal tackler behind the line and scamper relatively unimpeded 75 yards for a TD. The defense, though younger and inexperienced, will be improved and deft and aggressive enough to hold on to leads.
Can somebody replace Jaire Alexander?
P.J. Mbanasor appears the guy.
When I was sitting at Media Day with the Boomer Sooner transfer and Buckeye emigrant Rodjay Burns, Mbanasor immediately jumped in and articulated intelligent answers to all my questions before his CB cohort could even open his mouth. P.J., thanks to his confidence and lateral quickness and those guns rippling under his jersey, sure does remind one of his predecessor.
Rookie Chandler Jones may also prove he can fill the bill.
Will the Offensive Line continue to improve?
Yes, thanks to big uns Lukayus McNeil, Cole Bentley, Robbie Bell, Kenny Thomas, Linwood Foy and Mekhi Becton.
Becton is 6-7, 345 lbs. (14 pounds lighter than his listing in the Media Guide.) Only 19 years old, the behemoth improved consistently during the season. He’s the kind of kid you see opening holes and protecting the QB at places like Wisconsin. He represents how improved the OL should be, especially with a QB more likely to stick to the play called.
How much will U of L really miss Lamar Jackson?
Well, he did win the Heisman Trophy on a team that nose dived in its last three games of the season. He’s the kind of signal caller the true believers figure they’ll never see again wearing Cardinal red and black.
Then again, that’s what folks were saying when Teddy Bridgewater moved on, which bring us to . . .
. . . Puma Pass. What sometimes get lost in the hoopdedoo over Lamar Jackson is that Pass was one of the highest ranked QBs in the land. He chose the Cards over some fair to middling schools like Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Notre Dame. And, when he was transcended by LJ, he didn’t pout, didn’t threaten to transfer. He stayed and learned the old fashioned way. Repetition after repetition after repetition.
One luxury Pass will have is the AFROS, the receiving corps which will be Louisville’s most talented unit.
Is there a secret weapon we really haven’t seen yet?
Call him Tutu if you must, he’ll always be Chatarius to me. Chatarius Atwell. OK, I haven’t actually seen the former QB turned wideout perform, but . . . by all accounts coming out of August practice, the kid is roadrunner, beep beep fast, with good hands.
He’s apparently not the only new burner on the squad. Several observers advise reports of Cardinal triple crown quality speed are justified.
Are there any intangibles that weigh in the Cards’ favor?
Well, though it may contradict my lead, the schedule. Seven home games, including four of the toughest conference battles, the Seminoles, the Ramblin’ Wreck, the Demon Deacons and the Wolfpack. And UK, to whom the Cardinals will not lose twice in a row in Cardinal Stadium. Only Bama and Clemson would appear on paper as odds on losses. Remember, the Cards coulda woulda shoulda in Death Valley last time -- cut to the middle, Quick, cut to the middle -- during a campaign when the Tigers wore the national crown.
How many can/ will the U of L Cardinals win this regular season?
I’m marking down Ls against the Crimson Tide and at Death Valley.
Every other battle is eminently winnable. But I doubt this in transition group of Cardinals can sweep the rest of the slate. There’s bound to be a slip, more than likely two.
The Cards haven’t won less than eight since they joined the ACC.
They’ll tally at least that many Ws. But it’s gonna play out like this: 7-5 during the regular season. Plus a revenge W over Houston in the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl.
-- Seedy K