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

Time to talk about Syracuse, Duke, and Kentucky

Kentucky v Vanderbilt Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

Greetings and welcome to the fourth and final edition of the “Biggest Storylines for Louisville Football’s 2021 Opponents.” If you missed the first three you can find them here: Part 1, here Part 2, and here Part 3. We’ll wrap up this series talking about the final quarter of Louisville football’s 2021 schedule which includes Syracuse, Duke, and Kentucky.

Let’s hit it.

Syracuse Orange

I will be the first to admit that I am a huge Dino Babers fan. I think the guy is a genuinely caring coach who has some extremely clever offensive schemes. But I’m afraid that Babers is likely out of time at Syracuse.

When Syracuse won 10 games in 2018, few that had followed the program closely were stunned. Even though the Orange had only won eight games in his first two years, the flashes of offensive firepower were there and felt like a ticking time bomb before Syracuse put it all together and went off. The biggest flash happened in 2017 when Syracuse stunned #2 Clemson at home 27-24. The Orange then went on to lose the final five games of the season to finish 4-8.

But then it finally happened in 2018 when Syracuse’s offense which was led by Eric Dungey led the Orange to their first double digit winning season since 2001. Again, those who had followed Syracuse weren’t completely shocked, but the 10-win record also felt a bit hollow as Syracuse finished 40th overall in the SP+ ratings with the offense ranking 44th and the defense ranking 60th. The ACC also had a very down year in 2018 as well, which certainly didn’t hurt Syracuse.

This is why the subsequent collapse was also not shocking.

Following 2018, Syracuse has only won six games, with last season’s 1-10 record raising major red flags in Upstate New York.

That’s obviously not what you want to see in year five of your head coach and it’s the exact reason why Babers has the hottest seat in the ACC this year. Furthemore, Syracuse, who finished ranked 95th overall in SP+ (99th offense, 73rd defense), brings back almost everyone on offense and defense. Most of the time that’s a good thing, but this may be a time you want a clean slate and a youth movement.

They also face Ohio, Rutgers, Albany, and Liberty in the out of conference schedule and draw Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh from the Atlantic Division. I see at least four losses there. Not great.

For my own interests I’m hopeful that Babers can get things back on track, but I’m afraid with what he has returning and with what the schedule offers that he won’t be given any more time following this season.

Duke Blue Devils

David Cutcliffe has done some incredible work at Duke. Since his arrival in Rawleigh in 2008 he has led the Blue Devils to their first winning season since 1994 (2013), their first bowl win since 1994 (2012), and their first bowl win since 1960 (2015). I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that these feats came just years after Duke won a lawsuit against Louisville on the basis that they sucked at football. I’m not joking. So, for Cutcliffe to achieve any semblance of success with the program that had gone 4-42 from 2004-2007 before he took over in 2008 is nothing short of incredible.

But I’m afraid that time may be running out and that Duke is once again trending in the wrong direction. Following the outrageously successful 10-win season in 2013, Duke went on to win 9 games, 8 games, 4 games, 7 games, and 8 games in the respective seasons that followed. But after that short rise back to eight wins in 2018 the Blue Devils went 5-7 in 2019 and 2-9 in 2020.

I’m afraid this year doesn’t look much better. After finishing ranked 104th in Bill Connelly’s SP+ 2020 ratings, SP+ only projects the Blue Devils to climb two spots up to 102nd in 2021.

So, the story/question moving forward is “How much time does Cutcliffe have left?” And it’s actually a good one! Between Steve Spurrier patrolling the sidelines in the late 80s and Cutcliffe’s arrival in the late 2000s, Duke was the perennial doormat of Power 5 football. And I wouldn’t blame Duke one bit if they tried to see if Cutcliffe can make that rollercoaster go back up one more time.

But where things really get interesting is that Peyton and Eli Manning’s nephew, and 2023 QB prospect, Arch Manning has been offered by Cutcliffe to play at Duke. Why is this noteworthy? Cutcliffe’s history with the Manning family goes way back. He was the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for Peyton Manning at the University of Tennessee and head coach of Eli Manning at Ole Miss back before he took over at Duke. It’s a long shot, of course, but people aren’t ruling out the chance that Cutcliffe could coach one more Manning. And that may be reason enough for the leaders at Duke to keep him around just a little longer.

Kentucky Wildcats

Let me preface this section by stating the obvious: I am a Louisville fan and alumnus writing for a Louisville-centric blog who can never completely take off my red-tinted glasses and write about Kentucky in 100% objective and fair manner. So, don’t be shocked when I don’t shower the 2021 UK football team with compliments.

With that being said, let’s first determine what the biggest story of the offseason is for Kentucky.

When I started writing this series a month ago I probably would have said the biggest storyline is whether or not first-year coordinator Liam Coen can get the offense rolling following the departures of QB Terry Wilson, OC Eddie Gran, and QB coach Darin Hinshaw. Kentucky’s defense has undoubtedly been carrying the weight of the Wildcats since 2018 when the defense finished 15th overall in SP+ and won 10 games despite Kentucky’s offense finishing 64th. So the thought around Lexington was that if Kentucky can get their offense, which finished 80th overall in 2020, to get anywhere near their Top-50 defense then they might be able to do some damage with a down SEC-East and a soft non-conference schedule that includes Louisiana-Monroe, Chattanooga, and New Mexico State.

That was going to be the storyline, and it was simple enough.

But then the Kentucky hype train starting building up again, as it does every single summer. Any memories of the disappointing 5-6 2020 season were thrown out the door and talk about the Wildcats challenging for their first divisional championship in school history came roaring back.

Now, I will give credit that Kentucky has done a nice job in the transfer market as they landed the likes of former Nebraska WR Wan’Dale Robinson and former Ole Miss LB Jacquez Jones. That understandably has the fan base happy and I can’t blame them for getting excited about what kind of impact they may have.

And going back to earlier, Kentucky’s out of conference schedule, which ranks the weakest among the Power 5, combined with conference games against South Carolina, Vanderbilt, and Mississippi State, all but guarantees their path to six wins and bowl eligibility. All Mark Stoops has to do is win one more game and he’s guaranteed himself another auto-contract extension. Seriously.

Again, the schedule and the transfers are all justifiable reasons for Kentucky fans to be excited. And they landed a Top-35 recruiting class, which isn’t terrible!

But where I get confused is when Kentucky fans stop talking about winning seven games, as Mr. Bovada suggests, and they start talking about double digit wins and challenging the likes of Georgia and Florida for an SEC-East title.

I was even more baffled when I saw preview magazines like Athlon giving Kentucky a pre-season ranking of 35th overall.

Again, I understand the reasons where there is some positive energy around the program, but I also have reasons that many around the program may want to pump the brakes.

For starters, Kentucky ranks 98th overall in returning production as they return 60% on offense (87th) and 60% on defense (97th). The offensive numbers are concerning enough, but it’s easy to say that the loss of Terry Wilson impacts this number heavily and that Liam Coen will be able to replace this level of production with a guy like Beau Allen. But I have a hard time coming up with reasons for optimism is with the defense. The defense lost four NFL draft picks last season and a handful of transfers this spring. Even with some of the talent they’ve brought in, I’d be worried as UK fan about whether or not Stoops can rebuild the type of defense they’ve been used to seeing the last three years.

And while some of the human previewers, such as Athlon, have UK rated in near the top-quarter of college football, analytics like my personal favorite (shocker) don’t think as highly of the Wildcats. In fact, SP+ has Kentucky ranked 57th overall, 10 spots behind Louisville.

These are all things that would worry me as a Kentucky fan, and perhaps temper my expectations. I do think that the bowl win helped Kentucky get over the disappointing 2020 campaign and that fans may have fallen victim to one of the main rules of college football which is to “never predict future success based off of bowl game results,” but here we are.

All in all, I do think UK’s schedule sets them up nicely and will allow them to win enough games for fans to ignore the overall product on the field. But if you’re expecting an SEC-East Darkhorse, I’m not sure this team is it.

And with that I’ll be back to talk more football in a few weeks after I take a brief hiatus for my brother’s wedding. See y’all in a bit.

Until then, Red Rage.