I realize it is early. But I can’t stand it any longer. It’s time to start talking football. The 2012 Louisville Football season is poised to be outstanding, I’ll get to the roster and depth chart as the summer goes on, but for now let’s take a look at the schedule and how it shakes out for the Cards.
Kentucky, Missouri State, and North Carolina Kickoff the Season at Home
The Cards open the 2012 season at home in their annual bout with the Kentucky Wildcats for the Governor’s Cup. There is a lot of debate as to whether or not this game should kickoff the season for both of the teams. Last year UofL entered the game 1-1 after falling to FIU in their second game of the season. The Cats entered 2-0 and of course fell to the Cards 24-17 in Commonwealth Stadium. I really like the game as the opener, but I do have to admit that losing the first game of the season really takes the shine off of a new season. The 2012 Governor’s Cup gives the Cards an opportunity to reverse the trend of the Cards losing their first FBS game of the season.
FACT: Louisville has lost its first FBS game of the season for 4 consecutive seasons (2008: Kentucky, 2009: Kentucky, 2010 Kentucky, 2011: Florida International) in 2007 the Cards beat MTSU for their first FBS win before losing to the Cats the next game.
On paper Louisville looks like they are ready to catapult into the Top 20 of College Football in 2012. Kentucky’s offense should most certainly improve over their 118th (out of 120) performance in 2011. But the defense will not be as stout as in year’s past. I think this Kentucky game is extremely winnable for the Cards and it would take a shocker of an effort from the Cats to pull off a win in Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium on September 2 in front of an ESPN audience. Louisville’s offense and defense really stalled coming out of the gate in 2011, if that happens against Kentucky and DeMarco Robinson and the UK Tight Ends catch the Cards napping this could be a game. If the Cards come out clicking on all cylinders this game gets out of hand.
The Missouri State game serves as nothing more than a tune up. The Bears will be fresh off playing Kansas State 7 days previous in Manhattan, KS and Missouri State didn’t have much luck with FBS opponents in 2011, albeit, they did play top notch competition falling 51-7 to Arkansas and 56-7 to Oregon. Against the Razorbacks the Bears gained just 163 yards while allowing 466 (two punt returns for TDs limited the offensive output before the dogs were called off). Versus the Ducks they didn’t fare much better but did gain 289 yards in Eugene while allowing 681 yards! The biggest thing for this Missouri State game is for the stadium to be full and for the team to put on a show and play a lot of players. It’s a quick turn around following the UK game (6 days) so its going to be important that the team feels the love and returns that with a great performance.
So if everything goes as planned (does that ever happen in College Football?) the Cards should come into the final game of their Season Opening Home Stand 2-0. Before I get into North Carolina, the Cards haven’t been very good at home under Charlie Strong.
FACT: Louisville’s Home Record under Charlie Strong is 6-7 overall and just 3-5 vs. BCS teams.
The Home record is something Coach Strong is on the record with this off-season on what he expects to improve. I look at the UK game as a win, and Missouri State should be all-but automatic. The North Carolina game is quite the step up. First of all, this will be the 3rd game at home and it will be an opportunity to begin the season 3-0 and defeat the last out of conference BCS opponent of the season.
Last year’s North Carolina game was a showcase of how a young team can play good football but squander opportunities. The game was a carbon copy the the Cards’ Oregon State game in 2010 in the missed opportunity department. Chris Philpott missed two field goals (one at the end of a 15-play, 75-yard drive) and the other a 36-yarder with just :06 left in the 1st half. Those field goals give the Cards a 6-0 halftime lead. Then there was a Brandon Dunn off-sides penalty that turned a Field Coal attempt into a TD (net 4 points), on top of some really shoddy tackling from Shenard Holton and Terrell Floyd on Dwight Jones.
The reality of the 2011 UNC game is that this game came at a time when the Cards were reeling and they stuck in on the road and hung in by 7. Jamon Brown switched from the Defensive Line to the Offensive Line for this game due to John Miller being injured and 9 penalties really limited every opportunity in Teddy Bridgewater’s 2nd career start. The Defense really did a nice job throughout the game and gave UofL a chance. Moving into the 2012 contest with the Tar Heels, UNC brings in Larry Fedora who did a masterful job at Southern Miss from 2008-2011. UNC loses just 3 starters on offense but do lose 6 starters on defense. I think this is a VERY dangerous game for the Cardinals, this is STILL a young team and until they show me that they can WIN consistently at home and consistently handle success I have to have my doubts. See Pittsburgh 2011.
Louisville SHOULD win this game. Larry Fedora is a good coach, and the Tar Heel roster is full of good talent BUT UNC is prohibited from post-season play in 2012 and I expect that Cards show the world that they are ‘for real’ in this game. If North Carolina does beat UofL I take that as the Cards are still looking to the future rather than playing for today. The North Carolina is the ultimate barometer game for UofL in 2012. I’m going to count the UNC game as a swing game. Legitimately could go either way.
The Show Goes on the Road: Florida International, Southern Miss, Pittsburgh
If fans can’t get excited about a REVENGE game in Miami, FL, well then, there is no helping them. To be honest, there isn’t a trip on the schedule that I am MORE excited about than traveling to Miami on 9/22 for four reasons: 1) It’s Miami, 2) It’s REVENGE for a Loss in 2011, 3) The Chance to show the Miami area how well CARDNATION travels, and 4) do some scouting for the Orange Bowl. I plan on driving to all 3 locations and spending a lot of time in Florida the week in between the FIU and USM game.
Last season the Will Stein-led Cards fell at home to the Florida International Panthers. Thanks to a Sun Belt rule that disallows their membership from playing series with out of conference opponents that don’t include at least one game in their local area Louisville gets to return the favor in their favorite recruiting ground. The Panthers handed the Cards their first loss of 2011 despite out-gaining the Panthers by 153 yards, 15 more 1st downs, and 13 more minutes of possession. Thankfully T.Y. Hilton is now an Indianapolis Colt as he was responsible for two LONG TD catches (one with Dexter Heyman in single coverage on the superstar). Louisville did everything right to win the game EXCEPT execute in the redzone, and also gave up 2 big plays (both to Hilton) that really swung the game.
The FIU game is a classic revenge game for the Cards. They are much improved, the Offensive Line that played last September won’t resemble the one that takes the field in 2012. Teddy Bridgewater will be the QB, and even though Will Stein did have a nice evening throwing for 349 yards on 30 of 43 and 2 TDs, his Pick 6 INT really cost the Cards in a big way. Louisville should win this game, but FIU should be feeling pretty good about themselves at this point, their schedule sets up favorably with match-ups against Duke, Akron, and in-state rival UCF. Still, I fully expect UofL to assert themselves in a major way in Miami and earn the win.
From Miami, I’ll make the 822 mile journey during the week off probably stopping in Naples, FL for a bit and then the Destin, FL area before arriving in Hattiesburg for the game. UofL and Southern Miss are familiar foes and most recently met during the 2010 Beef O’Brady’s Bowl in St. Petersburg, FL where the Cards came back to win in dramatic fashion. Larry Fedora has moved to North Carolina and the Golden Eagles replaced him with Ellis Johnson who is in his first FBS head coaching role at the age of 60 after spending his career as a high-level Defensive assistant. I like the hire for USM, but replacing Fedora won’t be easy in Year 1, but the Golden Eagles have a lot to be excited for in 2012.
I feel like the Southern Mississippi game is a major trap game for the Cards. It’s the last non-league game in the middle of a 3-game road trip and Hattiesburg is a ridiculous environment for road teams to go into. For whatever reason, the USM crowd is never given its proper credit, but talk to some of Louisville’s former players who have been in several different types of road environments and they will tell you that M.M. Roberts Stadium is as tough of a place to play as any place in the country.
Southern Miss had a huge year in 2011, finishing 12-2 on the year and didn’t lose a single game at home. The Golden Eagles did only have the opportunity to play ONE BCS team in 2011, Virginia and USM dispatched a good Cavalier team (8-5) 30-24 in Virginia. Typically Southern Miss has at least one SEC school on their schedule but I’m guessing the SEC has found the Golden Eagles too tough to play along with their league schedule, so their regular SEC opponents would rather play Central Arkansas, Tulane, Jackson State, South Alabama, North Texas, Idaho, and Towson. Makes sense right? Well anyway, because Southern Miss is being dodged by their neighbors that affords the Cards the opportunity to play an old rival, and I’m all for it.
FACT: Charlie Strong has a road record of 7-4 during his tenure at UofL. 8-5 if you include bowls.
Just like the UNC game, I see the Southern Miss game as a 50/50 game for the Cards. The early schedule for the Golden Eagles is TOUGH. They start with Nebraska, then host East Carolina before going to Western Kentucky. The Cards will have an extra game under their belt at this point, but the Golden Eagles can help UofL out by beating Nebraska and making sure that they have UofL’s full attention. Until this youthful UofL proves that they can remain focused, I’m going to go ahead and assume that they will get the ‘big head’ and bust one. Louisville is fully capable to winning this game, and should, but the Golden Eagles aren’t going to lay down quietly, so I’ve gotta count this one as a 50/50 win as well. Basically I’m saying UofL will win one of the UNC or USM games but I can’t see both (I am hopeful I am wrong).
FACT: Charlie Strong is 5-2 against non-BCS schools and just 3-2 against FBS non-BCS schools.
After the Hattiesburg trip I’ll head home for two weeks (Cards get a BYE) before riding up to Pittsburgh to begin Big East play. Last year’s game against Pittsburgh was the infamous “Call of Duty Fiasco” and was also the final home game of the season. The Cards haven’t beaten the Pitt Panthers since 2007 and have been defeated a combined 117-34 during that time. To think that Louisville is suddenly going to come into Heinz Field and reverse that course without a tough fight is short-sighted. Still the Panthers are on their 4th Head Coach in 3 seasons after Dave Wannstedt was fired after the 2010 season, Mike Haywood was fired following a domestic violence charge just 2.5 weeks into the job, Todd Graham bolted for Arizona State following the 2011 season, and now the job is held by former Wisconsin Offensive Coordinator Paul Chryst as his first Head Coaching position.
Last year, the Cards’ game against Pittsburgh reminded everyone of how young this
team was. The Cards had two turnovers, and just 280 total yards on the day. Also, UofL didn’t put together a single scoring drive until less than 2:00 remaining in the game (the other scoring drive was just 11-yards (thank you defense). Pitt was inexplicably not flagged for a single penalty on the day (which photographic & video evidence finds hilarious not to mention BJ Butler’s phantom ‘Chop Block’ on a huge Senorise Perry kickoff return), and Adrian Bushell got himself suspended which forced Josh Bellamy to play Cornerback and Tino Sunseri made the play of his career on a read option route to Devin Street after Bellamy ditched his assignment.
Pitt will have two Big East games (Cincy & Syracuse) under their belt prior to playing the Cards. They will also have played two FCS schools (Youngstown State & Gardner-Webb) along with hosting Virginia Tech. Pittsburgh will greatly benefit from having Ray Graham return from his knee injury that ended his season. Graham was leading the nation in yardage prior to the UConn game that cut his season short. Pittsburgh also has several key players returning including Tino Sunseri, Devin Street, Mike Shanahan, Hubie Graham, Ryan Turnley, Chris Jacobson, and Matt Rotheram on Offense. Defensively Aaron Donald, Khaynin Mosley-Smith, Todd Thomas, Jarred Holley, and K’Waun Williams all return.
FACT: Louisville has only won ONE Big East Opener in 7 attempts. The lone opening victory in Big East play was in 2006 vs. Cincy (23-17). The losses: 2005 WVU 46-44, 2007 Syracuse 38-35, 2008 UConn 26-21, 2009 Pitt 35-10, 2010 Cincinnati 35-27, 2011 Cincinnati 25-16.
Personally, I see this as another really stern test for the Cards. The read option was too much for the Cards to handle last year and they allowed 396 yards, I remember being livid with BJ Butler for letting Tino Sunseri out of a tackle for loss on 3rd down that would have forced a punt and the Panthers went on to score. Josh Bellamy’s blunder, and Eli Rogers muffed two punts. Still, the Cards also only managed 280 yards on the afternoon. I know the Cards should be better, but given the history of this game and the fact that it is on the road, I’d say this game is a 40% win for the Cards. I’ll wrap up a 3,443 mile road trip and settle back in at home.
The CARDS Come Home for 3-game Stretch: South Florida, Cincinnati, and Temple
At this point in the season the Cards should have a firm direction for how their season is going. If they have been successful against UNC and on the road against Southern Miss and opening league play against Pitt then the next 6 games are something to really hone in on. It’s not that I don’t think the Cards CAN win these games individually, it’s the fact that I really want to see this young team develop a mentality that makes me believe that they can excel week in and week out. So basically if UofL has 4 wins at this point and find themselves at 4-2, I wouldn’t be shocked. But I also wouldn’t be surprised if they were 5-1 or even 6-0 either. However, if UofL IS 3-3 heading into this home stretch then that’s cause for some alarm.
Last Year’s Game with South Florida had potential BCS implications for the Cards and was their season finale. The Cards delivered an exciting finish to their season as they defeated the BJ Daniels-less Bulls on their home field. The win was significant for the Cards as it sent them into bowl season with 7 wins and showed the program that it was capable of winning in Tampa.
FACT: Since South Florida and Louisville began playing annually since 2003 the HOME team is 7-2 in the series. The TWO losses for the HOME team have come in the two most current games (2011 & 2010).
The 2012 game could be for the Big East’s BCS bid. Several outlets like the USF Bulls to challenge the Cards for the Big East Championship and that argument is valid based on their returning roster (you can bet BJ Daniels won’t miss the game again). The Bulls have 8 starters returning on Offense and 7 starters returning on Defense. I fully expect this game to be a defensive struggle and the winner being the team with the Quarterback that makes the most plays for his team. Teddy Bridgewater vs. BJ Daniels is bound to be a great football game and I honestly can’t sit here and pick a winner.
USF should be 5-1 with a loss from Florida State. But if somehow the Bulls could pull off a shocker and Louisville comes into the game with a stellar record as well, the nation might just take notice. South Florida will come into the game off of a BYE so any bumps and bruises should be able to heal and they should be able to have plenty of time to gameplan for the Cards. I do like that this game is at HOME for Louisville, but even with a home field advantage this game is too close to call the 1st of June. Get your popcorn ready!
Game #2 of the home stand and Game #8 overall is against the Cincinnati Bearcats. This game will be the 52nd meeting between the schools and the Bearcats own the series advantage 29-21-1, including the past 4 contests. 5 of the past 6 contests have been decided by 9 points or less. In 2011, the Cards led 16-7 heading into halftime only to fall 25-16 in Paul Brown Stadium. The loss was the last before a 3-game win streak began that ignited the Cardinal Football program into the momentum it still enjoys today.
In that game the Cardinal offensive line was still coming into form. Clearly not together in this game they actually faced a 1st and 30 due to an unreal series of penalties. UofL missed major opportunities on both sides of the ball and gave up an uncharacteristic 178 yards on the ground. The 2012 version will be at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium and the Bearcats will be without Zach Collaros, Isaiah Pead, DJ Woods. Butch Jones has a nice team, Cincinnati will have some tools with Munchie Legaux at QB, but they will have to replace 3 of 5 offensive lineman, their #1 TE, their QB, their #1 RB, both interior defensive lineman, their MLB, and their Free Safety.
I’m going to say it right now. Louisville wins this game and the Keg of Nails comes back to the Ville on October 26, 2012. The Cards will do this off just 6 days rest on a Friday night in front of a nationally televised audience. Cincinnati will be on the same amount of rest but should be a little road weary after having to play at Toledo the previous Saturday. October is a good month for UofL Football traditionally, and this is going to be a nice way to close out the Harvest month.
FACT: Charlie Strong is just 9-10 against BCS teams during his tenure at UofL.
The final game of this 3-game home stand is against Temple. Louisville is just 2-3 all time against the Owls losing all 3 contests in the early 1980s. The most recent meetings in 2003 & 2006 were wins for the Cards. The Owls played just one BCS team in 2011 and nearly pulled off the upset when they hosted Penn State. Temple finished off the season 9-4 after defeating Wyoming in the New Mexico Bowl. The appear on the Cardinals schedule and in the Big East out of necessity to reform the league following the departure of West Virginia. Temple was asked to leave the league after the 2004 season, but has since found their way home.
This game should be a WIN for the Cards. The Owls only lost 4 games in 2011, but 3 of those were to Toledo, Bowling Green, and Ohio. Not to mention the fact that Temple will be replacing 4 of 5 starting offensive lineman and a host of other starters. I think the most interesting thing about this game is that it matches two of Urban Meyer’s former Offensive Coordinator (Steve Addazio) and Defensive Coordinator (Charlie Strong). Both Coach Strong and Addazio spent 5 years (05-09 is the period they were both there) together as a part of the same staff at Florida that saw the Gators win 2 National Titles, 2 SEC Championships, 3 BCS Bowls, and a Heisman Trophy.
SYRACUSE ORANGE: 3 Games Left
At this point in the season things are going to begin to get a little dicey. Louisville should be in position to win the league if they have taken care of business of at least one or both Pitt & USF. Last year Syracuse finished 5-7 and just 1-6 in the Big East. When they made the trip to PJCS in 2011 the Orange was 5-2 and the Cards showed the rest of the league how to beat Syracuse as they were unable to win their final 5 contests. The Cards held the Orange to just 246 yards on the day and scored their only touchdown in their final drive with just 1:31 remaining in the game. Louisville dominated this game, but even though Louisville certainly holds the roster advantage this is a road game in the Carrier Dome (which I think is interesting that the Carrier Dome does not have Air Conditioning).
FACT: Louisville owns a 10-15 record in ROAD BIG EAST games. In fact, the Cards dropped 11 road league games in a row during 2007-2010. Charlie Strong is 5-2 in Big East road games.
Despite Louisville’s road record I can’t see this Doug Marrone team taking down the Cards in 2012. At this point in the year I expect the Louisville Cardinals to be extremely dangerous. The maturation during the 2011 season was impressive, by this time during the 2012 after several road tests, league bouts, and potentially national implications on the line I expect this team to be as sharp as ever. Ryan Nassib took a beating in 2011, and it’s probably not going to get much better for him this season. Syracuse couldn’t run the ball and forced Nassib to try and make plays and that didn’t work out well at all. Louisville returns 6 out of 7 of their front seven and their young players will be much improved a year later. I can’t see Louisville losing this game at all.
Cards Attempt to Send Seniors Out as Winners: Connecticut
Louisville’s final home game of the 2012 season is against UConn. Last season the Cards downed the Huskies 34-20 on Rentschler Field. In the game the Cards were out-gained and had more turnovers than the Huskies but found a way to win thanks to momentum built by Adrian Bushell’s opening kickoff for a touchdown and a complete team effort throughout the game. This game will give Louisville an opportunity to reverse the trend of losing Senior Day, and with just 2 games left there could be a lot on the line at this point for the Cards.
FACT: Louisville has lost 4 straight Senior Days (2008 WVU 35-21, 2009 Rutgers 34-14, 2010 WVU 17-10, 2011 Pitt 21-14), with the last one being an incredible comeback victory against Rutgers in 2007. The last time they fully handled an opponent in the final home game of the season was 2006 when the Cards walloped the UConn Huskies 48-17 and fans threw oranges on the field to celebrate an expected Orange Bowl berth.
Connecticut and Louisville have met 7 times as members of the Big East conference and UofL owns a 4-3 series advantage and 2-1 at home. Paul Pasqualoni is the winningest coach in Big East conference history, but also owns the dubious distinction of posting the worst record in Syracuse football’s 117-year history. UConn will be without 5 starters on offense, but return 8 of their starters on defense from 2011. Considering UConn held UofL to just 299 yards the eight returning starters on defense for the Huskies is significant. It’s important to note that Louisville’s defensive line was a MASH unit for the Connecticut game, but the Cardinal defense still only allowed 329 yards.
I expect that Louisville ends its Senior Day struggles and heads into the final game of the season riding a huge wave of momentum. UConn will have 15 days to prepare for the contest but at this point in the season I kind of seeing them ‘mail it in’ the rest of the way. The Cards have 7 home games in 2012 and I expect them to win at least 6 of them. The two games I question the most are North Carolina and South Florida, but I don’t expect them to drop both. Obviously if I had to choose I would pick the non-league match-up but things don’t work that way. If the Cards lose 2 home games the program isn’t quite at the level we think it is. If they win them all, it’s ahead of schedule.
The Grand Finale`: Rutgers In Piscataway, NJ
We’ve all seen this before. Louisville vs. Rutgers, Thursday night football with a BCS berth on the line. There is no secret why this game is on ESPN so late in the season on Thursday night. Louisville and Rutgers are ESPN GOLD as far as ratings are concerned, the 2006 match-up is still the #1 watched Football game in the New York City in ESPN’s history. The most recent match-up in 2011 (with absolutely nothing on the line) was the 4th most watched games in ESPN2′s history in the NYC area.
Greg Schiano has bolted for the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the school promoted longtime Offensive Line Coach, Kyle Flood, to resume the head coaching duties, but most of Schiano’s staff has been replaced. The one thing that stuck out to me during the 2011 Rutgers vs. Louisville game was how little offense the Scarlet Knights had outside of Mohammed Sanu. It’s also important to note that the win was the first of 5 out of their last six games and was the beginning of how we remembered Louisville football in 2011.
This game could be trouble for Louisville. It’s a road game, which we’ve already covered, but it is also just 5 days after the Connecticut game. Rutgers will also have to travel home from Pittsburgh 5 days before this game as well, so I guess it is a net zero impact but it is definitely a quick turn around for a game that potentially has so much on the line. I really like Rutgers’ returning roster particularly on defense, but this late in the season and with the quick turn around whoever has the most depth and is in the best health probably wins this game. I’d have to give Louisville the edge in QB play, but Gary Nova was victimized by several drops from his receivers in last season’s game.
Louisville is 4-3 in Big East games vs. Rutgers and just 1-3 in New Jersey. A new staff will be in place, Gary Nova will be a year older, but so will all of Louisville’s young guys too. It will come down to who can run the ball, last year UofL rushed for 187 yards and Rutgers just 91st. Both defenses will essentially be the same and I see another low scoring, ball control, type of game. Charlie Strong is 2-0 against the Scarlet Knights, and Rutgers might enter the game with just one conference loss. This will be a really tough game, it will be exciting, and I just wish UofL was hosting to have that additional edge. This game will determine how the post-season looks and hopefully the Cards can exact revenge from 2006 and know that they will be BCS-bound following this game.
Bird’s Eye View
In Summation, I think UK, Missouri State, Florida International, Cincinnati, Temple, Syracuse, and UConn are wins for Louisville. I’m not saying that CAN NOT lose these games. I’m saying that they SHOULD NOT lose these games. Some might argue that I have Cincinnati in this group, but from what I see on paper Louisville should win that game. In all cases, I don’t think these will be seven cake walks, but these are games Louisville MUST win, and must expect to win in 2012.
With these SEVEN games assumed as wins, I look at the two remaining Home Games (North Carolina & South Florida) and the three remaining Away Games (Southern Miss, Pitt, Rutgers) as 50/50 games. Of course, none of these games are out of reach. I’m inclined to gave Louisville an advantage in the home games and also the games later in the season. I feel like 2012 is the year where Cardinal Football finally gets its act together at home, but I think the Cards probably finish 6-1 at home. On the road I look for the Cards to win at least one of the USM, Pitt, and Rutgers contests. Maybe I am being conservative, maybe I’m being overzealous, but I have attempted to be realistic.
Best Case Scenario: 11-1, with the only loss coming from North Carolina. If the Cards end up 11-1 with a loss to a Big East school that could put the BCS bid at risk due to tie-breaker rules.
Worst Case Scenario: 7-5, the worst case sees the Cards drop ALL of the 50/50 games. It’s a possibility, but not one I think Card fans will have to endure in 2012.
My Best Guess: 9-3. I’d love to write 12-0 (I’m a fan). But I still think this Louisville team is cutting their teeth on their potential. I’d love for them to prove me wrong and show me that they are ready for the big time, but the fact is that 2011 was a leaderless group comprised of freshman and sophomores. Until the leadership shifts from the coaching staff to the players the Louisville football program will not be able to realize it’s full potential. I think we could see that develop late in the season, but there may be some learning moments along the way.
Either way, I’m excited. Wish we could tee it up today.