Louisville must have really missed my colleague, Andrea Adelson, because it followed her to the ACC blog. Adelson, who used to cover the Big East, has great insight on the Cardinals and will help us welcome them into the ACC blog this week:
AA, how competitive do you think Louisville can be in its first season in the ACC without former coach Charlie Strong and former QB Teddy Bridgewater – especially considering it’s stuck in the ACC’s Atlantic Division with defending national champ FSU and Clemson?
AA: Louisville might be behind Florida State and Clemson at this point, but the Cardinals are ahead of everybody else in the division. Therefore, I think they have a realistic chance to finish no worse than third in the Atlantic despite the loss of Strong and Bridgewater. Finding a quarterback obviously is going to be quite the undertaking. Bridgewater is one of the best college quarterbacks I have had a chance to cover. If I was running an NFL team, I would choose him to be my quarterback in the draft this year. Without such a smart, poised veteran leader behind center, Louisville could struggle.
There are major personnel losses on defense that have to be addressed, too. But having said that, this team returns quite a bit of speed and athleticism, and that should be an advantage. I know many have knocked the strength of schedule in the American, and rightfully so, but I also saw Louisville absolutely whip Florida and Miami in back-to-back bowl games. This is not a flash-in-the-pan program. Strong did a terrific job finding talent and building a solid foundation. Petrino certainly knows how to develop talent and win in a difficult conference. I don’t see another 11-win season, but I don’t see a sub-.500 season, either.
Obviously most of the questions have surrounded a new coaching staff and quarterback, but doesn’t the defense have just as many questions?
AA: Absolutely. Louisville has to replace seven starters, including five in the front seven: defensive end Marcus Smith (who led the nation in sacks); linebacker Preston Brown (team leader in tackles) and the outstanding safety duo of Hakeem Smith and Calvin Pryor. Those four happened to among the best players on the 2013 team. Louisville also will be playing out of a base 3-4 set under new coordinator Todd Grantham, different from the base 4-3 the Cardinals played under Strong. But there are terrific players returning, including defensive end Lorenzo Mauldin (10 sacks a year ago), linebacker James Burgess (67 tackles) and cornerbacks Terell Floyd, Charles Gaines and Jermaine Reve, just to name a few. To me, the biggest question that has to be answered is at safety.
One of the biggest criticisms of Louisville in recent years has been its strength of schedule. Is the program really as good as its record has indicated, or does it come into the ACC having something to prove?
AA: I actually think Louisville was better the last two years than its record indicated. Go back to 2012. Louisville had no business losing to Syracuse or UConn based on the talent on the field. (No offense, Orange fans!). While UCF ended up becoming Fiesta Bowl champion this past season, you could also argue the Cardinals should not have lost to the Knights at home after taking the lead with three minutes to go. I expected an unbeaten 2013 season, quite honestly. But Louisville has had a tendency to overlook their overmatched opponents the last two years. I truly believe the players thought they could just roll the helmets onto the field and win without much effort. In the biggest games the last two years -- Florida in the Allstate Sugar Bowl and Miami in the Russell Athletic Bowl -- you saw a team on a mission, with something to prove. Those performances show the real Louisville, the team that needs to show up every single week in ACC play. As bad as Wake Forest and NC State were last year, they know how to pull an upset or two. Just ask Florida State and Clemson.
Overall, what will the program bring to the ACC, and what do you think it will get out of the move?
AA: The program brings the ACC more credibility on a national stage based on the results from the last two years. This is a slam-dunk trade for Maryland. Louisville will get more than it probably can imagine at this point. The Cardinals already have the No. 2 athletic budget in the ACC at roughly $85 million – and that is before earning millions upon millions more in television dollars than it received in the Big East/American, not to mention a much larger slice of the College Football Playoff payout as a member of the ACC. Some of that new revenue will go right into the football program and help the Cardinals continue the momentum they already have going for them.