SEC vs. Big East: Louisville is best hope

The Big East school with the best chance of dethroning the SEC from the top of the college football world is the one that gets the first shot at the sport's best conference.

OK, so a Louisville season-opening win over Kentucky wouldn't exactly silence the chants of "S-E-C!" that have been coming from down South the past six years. But the Cardinals enter 2012 as the Big East favorite and coach Charlie Strong knows that the cream will have to rise to the top if the conference wants to effect change.

"What's going to be critical now, for this league to really become what it needs to become, we need to play better football," Strong said. "It needs to be where somebody can step up and have a good year or maybe one or two teams. We need to become a league where there are two or three teams people are talking about every year."

To Strong's credit, the Cardinals have been shifting in that direction, following the 15-21 three-year reign of Steve Kragthorpe by going 7-6 in each of Strong's first two seasons, splitting last year's conference title with West Virginia and Cincinnati.

Of course, from the outside view, failing to win arguably the worst automatic-qualifying conference outright is not grounds for national praise. And Strong knows that.

The third-year head coach spent 11 straight seasons in the SEC before taking over at Louisville, and he was a part of two national title-winning staffs with Florida. That experience proved valuable during Strong's first full recruiting cycle, as he took advantage of the changing of the guard at Miami and landed the Cardinals ESPN's No. 22 class, which featured three ESPN 150 players from the Sunshine State.

One of those 2011 commits, former Miami Northwestern standout Teddy Bridgewater, completed nearly 65 percent of his passes last season, throwing for 2,129 yards and 14 touchdowns en route to winning unanimous Big East Rookie of the Year honors.

Bridgewater enters this season on the watch lists for both the Davey O'Brien (best quarterback) and Maxwell (outstanding player) awards.

He will have a deep and talented receiving unit to throw to, and the Cardinals return 17 starters from last season, including nine from a defense that finished 10th nationally against the run (103.5 yards per game) and 14th in scoring (19.2 points per game).

Then, of course, there's the schedule. After the Kentucky game, the only other BCS-conference school Louisville faces outside of Big East play is North Carolina, which is hamstrung by NCAA sanctions and will be in just its third week of adjusting to new coach Larry Fedora's up-tempo attack.

The Cardinals host defending co-Big East champion Cincinnati and USF, the conference's preseason No. 2 team. They get just three conference road games, with the regular-season finale at Rutgers, the Big East's No. 3 preseason team, looking like the toughest test.

Can Louisville enter the Garden State undefeated? Will it matter if multiple other AQ-conference schools run the table? All of it is tough to predict from the outset, but for a conference in need of an alpha dog, this may be the likeliest of options for ending the SEC's reign in 2012.