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Biggest Storylines for Louisville Football’s 2021 Opponents: Part I

Let’s see what the Rebels, Colonels, and Golden Knights have been up to

Mississippi v LSU Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

This Memorial Day Weekend we will hit the magical 100 Days ‘Til Kick Off mark, which of course means CardinalStrong’s greatest summer tradition “The Cardinal Countdown” will begin! It also means that it’s time to preview all twelve opponents and beat every possible storyline into the ground. But before we look too deep into each opponent and ourselves, let’s keep things close to the surface level and explore the biggest offseason questions/storylines for each of the Louisville Fighting Cardinals’ twelve opponents. Let’s start with the first three opponents.

Ole Miss Rebels

After playing only ten games in 2020 and winning more games (five) than they did in 2020 (four), capped by an impressive win over 11th-ranked Indiana in the Outback Bowl, things in Oxford, Mississippi look to be off to a decent start for the infamous Lane Kiffin. Ole Miss returns a great deal of their prolific offense, with 78% of 2020’s production returning, including the highly touted Matt Corral at quarterback, there aren’t too many concerns about whether or not the offense will stay electric. But the one area the Rebels’ coaching staff appears concerned with is replacing the New York Jets draftee Elijah Moore.

Moore was a huge focal point of Kiffin’s high powered offense last season, hauling in almost 1200 receiving yards, and the coaches appear to be trying everything to replace him and not skip a beat offensively. In an interesting move, it appears backup quarterback John Rhys Plumlee will be transitioning to receiver. Plumlee showed flashes of what he may be able to become as a slot receiver after he caught five passes in their bowl win, but he also plays baseball at Ole Miss and missed spring football because of it. There’s no doubt he’s a great athlete, so the Rebels are hoping that he can get into receiving quickly over the summer. Otherwise, they may be looking at true freshman J.J. Henry having to step into these big shoes.

On a more topical level, there is some chatter among fans and coaches about whether Lane Kiffin has turned a corner, personally, and if he can stay in one place and build something sustainable. Only time will tell, but I don’t think this is the year we’ll get our answer.

Eastern Kentucky Colonels

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t follow EKU’s football program very closely. So, forgive me for not knowing the latest hot goss in the Colonels’ locker room. But that doesn’t mean EKU doesn’t have some interesting storylines. In some of the biggest FCS news of the offseason, Eastern Kentucky and Jacksonville State announced their departure from the Ohio Valley Conference and their plans to join the Atlantic Sun Conference in all sports except football in 2021. The Atlantic Sun Conference intends to start its own football league in 2022, but for 2021 the A-SUN and the Western Athletic Conference, who is also starting its own football league, are holding a partnership called the “A-SUN – WAC Challenge” where teams will play a seven-game round robin schedule with the winner getting an auto-bid to the FCS Playoffs.

This was a pretty bold and not-well received move by the Colonels considering they were a founding member of the OVC and had been in the league for the conference’s entire 73 year history up until they left. It also didn’t help that the news about their departure leaked days before it was officially announced. It is no secret that EKU and its boosters are trying to set themselves up for an eventual move to the FBS level, which they openly have tried and failed to do recently, and they apparently aren’t scared to burn any bridges en route of this pipedream. Whether or not it totally backfires should be something fun to keep an eye on.

Central Florida Golden Knights

Fun Fact: UCF fans hate when people still call them the “Golden Knights.” They claim they dropped the “Golden” part, just as Memphis State claims they dropped the “State” part. You know the drill.

UCF coming to town for Louisville’s third game in eleven days isn’t ideal. They return star quarterback Dillon Gabriel, who threw for 3570 yards, 32 touchdowns, and only 4 interceptions in just ten games last season, and are looking to do some damage this season and claim at least the G5’s spot in the New Year’s Six.

But, of course, the biggest storyline this offseason for the Golden Knights is the hiring of former Auburn Head Coach Gus Malzahn. It’s an intriguing hire, and definitely a story to keep an eye on. Until last season Malzahn only had one season at Auburn where he finished below eight wins. But despite Malzahn’s 68-35 record at Auburn, including a trip to the BCS National Championship game, he was let go following last season’s 6-4 campaign.

He inherits some fantastic star power on offense, but has been putting in work this off-season trying to rebuild a defense that finished ranked 66th overall in SP+’s defensive ratings, and ranks 91st in returning production. He’s done a great job in the transfer portal by signing defensive linemen Big Kat Bryant (Auburn), Ricky Barber Jr. (Western Kentucky), linebacker Hirkley Latu (BYU), and FCS All-American linebacker Byson Armstrong (Kennessaw State).

I’m interested to see if this hire will work out or not. Most of the time I shy away from rooting for G5 schools to hire former P5 coaches (i.e. Tuberville at Cincinnati), but for some reason I like this hire and I think he can make it work at a school like UCF where it’s virtually impossible to lose. But as I’ve said for the two other football programs on this list, only time will tell.

I’ll be back after the holiday as we cover the biggest questions and stories of the offseason for Florida State, Wake Forest, and Virginia.

Spoiler Alert: Chubba Purdy may have made a bad decision.

Go Cards. Red Rage.