Clemson owned the ACC a year ago, but the competition promises to get tougher in 2016. With that in mind, we’re looking at what the league’s other bowl teams must do to bridge the gap. Next up: Louisville.
How they make the ACC championship game: Louisville returns one of the most experienced teams in the ACC, with 18 starters back -- including dual-threat quarterback Lamar Jackson. If he can continue where he left off after a stunning performance against Texas A&M, the Cardinals will be in great position to try to take down both Florida State and Clemson. One of the biggest issues this team had last season was an inability to go with one quarterback. So stability at that position will be huge to Louisville’s quest toward winning the ACC. Meanwhile, the top four rushers all return, and the top 10 receivers on the two-deep all return, giving Jackson plenty of talented skill players to work with as they try to up their production. Defensively, Louisville must deal with the loss of Sheldon Rankins, but the Cards got huge news when DeAngelo Brown, Devonte Fields, Josh Harvey-Clemons and Keith Kelsey all decided they would return to school for their senior seasons. Fields led the team in sacks and tackles for loss; Kelsey is the backbone of the defense; Brown is needed to anchor a defensive line losing two starters. And the entire secondary returns. This is a defensive unit that ranked in the Top 4 in the ACC in four major statistical categories, so they should be better in 2016 with eight starters back.
What’s holding them back: Among the issues the Louisville offense dealt with last season, the biggest was on the offensive line -- a unit that struggled for a majority of the season. Their improvement and development is going to be absolutely huge for Louisville to get where it wants to go. How much better will this group be? Jackson showed glimpses of intrigue last season, but will he be able to hold down the starting job for the entire season? Will his passing performance improve? Jackson completed only 55 percent of his passes a year ago and threw eight interceptions to 12 touchdowns. With Kyle Bolin still around and the addition of ESPN 300 quarterback Jawon Pass, Jackson is going to have to hold off some tough competition to keep his job. As for the defense, there is plenty to celebrate with all the returning starters back. But how Louisville replaces Sheldon Rankins is perhaps the biggest question mark for this team. Rankins quietly did his job, and he did it well -- so well that it might have been easy for outsiders to overlook his performance. Given the limited-experienced depth at defensive end, Louisville may end up using multiple players just to make up for what they are losing with Rankins. If they can’t find an answer, this will be an area offenses will exploit.
X-factor: Jackson. The reason expectations have started to rise for Louisville is centered squarely on Jackson because of his 453 total yards against the Aggies (226 yards rushing; 227 yards passing). And though we already have seen what Jackson can do, the question remains: Is that type of game and production sustainable/doable over the course of an entire season?