Confused? Check out the glossary here.
1. No, Louisville is not an elite team
I believe, solely on faith, that one day @SBN_BillC will say something nice about Louisville.— Mark Ennis (@Mengus22) August 1, 2013
I guess I've repeated myself a few times this offseason.
Heading into the Sugar Bowl with Florida, Louisville ranked 21st in the BCS standings, 22nd in the AP poll. Despite a solid record (10-2), this felt about right -- the Cardinals had lost two of three to finish the regular season and beaten pretty bad FIU, Southern Miss, and USF teams by a combined 13 points. They were supposed to take their beating against Florida in New Orleans, fall out of the final polls, and then, with quite a bit returning from the 2012 squad, begin the 2013 season somewhere in the No. 20-25 range, perhaps No. 15-20 if you're being aggressive (or just really like Teddy Bridgewater).
Then Louisville beat Florida. Bridgewater, hobbled in November, was back to firing perfect passes into tiny windows 15 yards downfield, and with an early lead, the Cardinals and their solid pass defense had their way with Florida and its shaky passing offense. Louisville won, 33-23; it was a lovely cap to an 11-win season that, computer rankings be damned, was an 11-win season.
Bowl games are in no way predictive of success the following year. Winning a bowl game does not depend on the same specific set of skills as winning a regular season game; it is as much about motivation, rust, and keeping your players out of trouble (legal or grades) during the break as it is about the pure quality of your team overall. Bowls can finish seasons on sharp or sour notes, but they have next to no bearing on the next season. In that regard, they count like any other game.
For Louisville, though, the win completely and totally changed their offseason perceptions. Instead of getting voted into the No. 20-25 range, the Cardinals are eighth in the USA Today coaches' poll and ninth in the Sports Illustrated rankings and AP poll. The win over Florida was worth 10-15 spots. And with a ridiculously friendly schedule, Louisville is generally considered a darkhorse BCS title game contender (or, hell, not even a darkhorse).
Expectations set the bar for success versus disappointment. Louisville has ranked 42nd, 45th, and 28th in the F/+ rankings in three seasons under Charlie Strong. Considering where the Cardinals were (90th in 2008, 96th in 2009), that's wonderful improvement. If they were to jump again in 2013, to about 15th with a couple of road losses (to, say, Cincinnati and USF or something), a 10-2 overall record, and a potential conference title (depending on Cincinnati's exploits), this should be considered the next step in a wonderful tenure; instead, it would be called a disappointment. This is really, really unfair.
Just ask West Virginia. I've been calling it the West Virginia Effect all offseason, but it could just as easily be called the Nebraska Effect, or the Clemson Effect, or the [Any Team That Looked Great in a Bowl Game and Ended Up a Top-10 Team in the Preseason Even Though It Wasn't Ready] Effect. Perceptions are not reality, but they shape the narrative, and if the narrative for Louisville in 2013 is now "BCS Run or Bust" … well, that makes "bust" pretty likely.
For Louisville to live up to the preseason rankings this year, not only does an offense that was already close to elite (10th in Off. F/+) have to get better, but a defense that was average (48th in Def. F/+) and has been for three years, must improve significantly. (And a god-awful special teams unit has to find competence, for that matter.) Possible? Sure. But the numbers suggest the Cardinals are still a few steps away from elite, and expecting drastic improvement over last season seems somewhere between unlikely and inconceivable.
…it should be noted that while the numbers are not fans of the Cardinals, there is some context within Louisville's 2012 output that the numbers aren't programmed to find. For one thing, the Southern Miss game, the least impressive statistical performance of the season (barely beating an 0-12 team is never going to look good), was played in a veritable monsoon in Hattiesburg. Plus, in both the UConn and Rutgers games, Teddy Bridgewater was nursing injuries to both his right ankle (sprain) and left wrist (break).
These three games were among Louisville's four or five worst offensive performances of the season; remove them, and the Cardinals perhaps rise a few percentage points in the overall 2012 F/+ rankings (and, therefore, in the 2013 projections as well).
Still … Louisville has given no indication that is ready to be a top-10 team. Because of Bridgewater and the schedule and likely defensive improvement, the Cardinals can certainly expect to be better than they were last year, and again, that's exciting. But "better" probably means closer to 20th or so, maybe 15th. And it probably means losing at Cincinnati.
2012 Schedule & Results
|Record: 11-2 | Adj. Record: 8-5 | Final F/+ Rk: 28|
|Date||Opponent||Score||W-L||Adj. Score||Adj. W-L|
|2-Sep||Kentucky||32-14||W||31.5 - 37.7||L|
|8-Sep||Missouri State||35-7||W||25.7 - 29.9||L|
|15-Sep||North Carolina||39-34||W||43.5 - 32.9||W|
|22-Sep||at Florida International||28-21||W||26.8 - 33.7||L|
|29-Sep||at Southern Miss||21-17||W||17.7 - 26.2||L|
|13-Oct||at Pittsburgh||45-35||W||52.2 - 32.4||W|
|20-Oct||South Florida||27-25||W||36.7 - 27.4||W|
|26-Oct||Cincinnati||34-31||W||37.9 - 18.9||W|
|3-Nov||Temple||45-17||W||37.9 - 29.4||W|
|10-Nov||at Syracuse||26-45||L||39.4 - 34.9||W|
|24-Nov||Connecticut||20-23||L||28.3 - 22.1||W|
|29-Nov||at Rutgers||20-17||W||29.9 - 34.7||L|
|2-Jan||vs. Florida||33-23||W||38.2 - 31.2||W|
|Points Per Game||31.2||50||23.8||36|
|Adj. Points Per Game||34.3||23||30.1||83|
3. From mediocre to pretty damn good
Because I only think Louisville will be a top-20 or so team this year, that has turned me into a naysayer, but I certainly need to point out that a lot of Louisville's questionable results came early in the year; and Louisville was much, much better late. If you remove the three high-context games (USM, UConn, Rutgers), you can see pretty significant improvement:
Adj. Points Per Game (first 5 sans Southern Miss): Opponent 33.6, Louisville 31.9 (minus-1.7)
Adj. Points Per Game (last 8 sans UConn/Rutgers): Louisville 40.4, Opponent 29.0 (plus-11.4)
(If you don't remove those three games, the shift is still pretty clear: minus-3.1 over the first five games, plus-8.7 over the final eight.)
Even if we cherry-pick the data and make it as Louisville-friendly as possible with those last eight games, I have to point out that a plus-11.4 adjusted scoring margin still would have ranked only 13th last season. Still, 13th is pretty close to top-10 caliber. (If we were to cherry pick for the teams ahead of Louisville, too, however...)
|Q1 Rk||36||1st Down Rk||23|
|Q2 Rk||20||2nd Down Rk||37|
|Q3 Rk||28||3rd Down Rk||16|
Note: players in bold below are 2013 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Teddy Bridgewater||6'3, 196||Jr.||**** (5.8)||287||419||3,718||68.5%||27||8||28||6.3%||7.9|
|Brett Nelson||6'4, 231||Jr.||*** (5.5)|
|Will Gardner||6'5, 230||RSFr.||*** (5.6)|
|Kyle Bolin||6'3, 196||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
4. Ode to Teddy
Perhaps the most frustrating part of my Bill Hates Louisville offseason is ... I love Teddy Bridgewater, and I really do think he's going to have a pretty good team on his hands. Louisville ranked 10th in Off. F/+ last year, and it should almost certainly expect to improve at least a couple of spots this season.
(I was going to put an "...as long as Bridgewater stays healthy" disclaimer on the end of that sentence, but honestly, you could put that disclaimer at the end of every sentence in this piece, like "...in bed" at the end of fortune cookies. If Bridgewater gets hurt, all bets are off. The problem, of course, is that Bridgewater takes a lot of hits.)
The first thing you noticed was the maturity. Bridgewater took over the starting quarterback job as a true freshman and immediately looked more composed and less harried than any other QB on the roster. He steps up into the pocket with pass-rushers swirling around him. If he gets a chance, he buys time outside of the pocket with his solid speed. He does not get spooked or trigger-happy, and he didn't even when he was in his first semester on campus.
The next thing you noticed was the accuracy. He makes tough throws look very, very easy. His arm strength is fine, but the way he places the ball is just ridiculous. His receivers had pretty ridiculous averages last year -- four of the top five wideouts/tight ends averaged at least 9.2 yards per target, and four of the five had at least a 65 percent catch rate -- and I have no idea how much credit to give them for that; all they had to do was stick their hands up. In the Sugar Bowl, Florida's secondary came out hitting hard; the entire defense seemed to expect that Louisville would fold after a few big hits and tough stands. Instead, you could see the Gators wilting with every perfectly placed ball Bridgewater threw. He needs the smallest of windows to get the pass where he wants it to go, and I'm really happy that we get to watch him for one more season.
|RB||5'9, 215||Jr.||***** (6.1)||242||1,242||5.1||N/A||10||+6.9|
|Dominique Brown (2011)||RB||6'2, 216||Jr.||**** (5.8)||140||533||3.8||N/A||4||-3.4|
|Senorise Perry||RB||6'0, 187||Sr.||*** (5.5)||136||705||5.2||5.2||11||+5.8|
|Teddy Bridgewater||QB||6'3, 196||Jr.||**** (5.8)||46||230||5.0||2.8||1||+1.6|
|Corvin Lamb||RB||5'9, 212||So.||*** (5.6)||13||50||3.8||6.2||1||+0.6|
|Brandon Radcliff||RB||5'9, 216||RSFr.||*** (5.6)|
5. The backs weren't (really) the problem
The Louisville passing game was perfectly fine (good in terms of explosiveness, great in terms of efficiency) last year. But the running game needed some work. And in the line stats below, it's pretty easy to locate the problem. The backs certainly weren't great -- Jeremy Wright was in no way explosive, and Senorise Perry was not amazing in that regard -- but the line did them no favors. Louisville ranked 79th in Adj. Line Yards, 75th in Power Success Rate, and an absolutely terrible 117th in Stuff Rate (rate of runs getting stuffed behind the line).
This makes the Cardinals' two all-conference line selections look dubious, but what's perhaps more dubious is that both of those picks (center Mario Benavides, tackle Alex Kupper) are gone. Five players return with starting experience (64 career starts), and it bears mentioning that the line was incredibly young last year, but it's difficult to imagine significant improvement here.
Though the backfield wasn't bad, it should be a lot better in 2013. First, Dominique Brown returns; statistically, Brown wasn't really any better than Wright, but since Wright's gone, he'll help. Of course, the big addition is Auburn's Michael Dyer. The troubled junior never quite looked like a five-star back at Auburn -- he was good to very good, certainly, but he didn't necessarily show the elite explosiveness typically associated with such a blue-chipper -- but he was certainly good enough to help the Tigers win the 2010 national title and avoid complete collapse in 2011. (The collapse was completed after he left.) As long as he stays out of trouble and on the team, he is at least a little bit of an upgrade. And combined with the return of a solid receiver, Michaelee Harris, from injury as well, there is a lot to like in the skill position two-deep. That Louisville managed to rank 10th in Off. F/+ despite this line was impressive, but the line could still prevent the Cards from rising too high.
|Damian Copeland||WR-Z||6'1, 182||Sr.||** (5.3)||68||50||628||73.5%||9.2||15.6%||63.2%||9.3||94.3|
|Eli Rogers||WR-H||5'10, 182||Jr.||**** (5.8)||64||46||505||71.9%||7.9||14.7%||57.8%||7.8||75.8|
|DeVante Parker||WR-X||6'3, 209||Jr.||*** (5.7)||62||40||744||64.5%||12.0||14.3%||54.8%||12.3||111.7|
|Michaelee Harris (2011)||WR-H||6'2, 202||Jr.||**** (5.9)||46||35||438||76.1%||9.5||13.0%||67.4%||10.2||58.8|
|Ryan Hubbell||TE||6'5, 227||Sr.||** (5.4)||25||14||239||56.0%||9.6||5.7%||72.0%||8.9||35.9|
|Senorise Perry||RB||6'0, 187||Sr.||*** (5.5)||21||18||181||85.7%||8.6||4.8%||42.9%||8.7||27.2|
|WR-H||5'9, 173||Jr.||*** (5.5)||10||7||69||70.0%||6.9||2.5%||30.0%||8.0||8.1|
|Jarrett Davis||WR-Z||5'9, 172||Sr.||** (5.4)||7||7||54||100.0%||7.7||1.6%||42.9%||6.8||8.1|
|WR-X||6'5, 205||Jr.||**** (5.9)||1||1||12||100.0%||12.0||0.3%||0.0%||5.0||2.5|
|Kai De La Cruz||WR-X||6'0, 186||Jr.||** (5.4)|
|Zeke Pike||TE||6'6, 251||RSFr.||*** (5.7)|
|James Quick||WR-Z||6'2, 171||Fr.||**** (6.0)|
|Mario Benavides||C||47 career starts; 2012 1st All-Big East|
|Alex Kupper||LT||27 career starts; 2012 2nd All-Big East|
|Jake Smith||C||6'4, 312||Jr.||*** (5.5)||26 career starts|
|John Miller||LG||6'2, 321||Jr.||*** (5.6)||20 career starts|
|Jamon Brown||LT||6'6, 350||Jr.||*** (5.6)||16 career starts|
|Ryan Mack||RT||6'5, 319||So.||*** (5.6)||1 career start|
|Kamran Joyer||RG||6'3, 265||Sr.||*** (5.5)||1 career start|
|Chris Acosta||RG||6'3, 275||Jr.||** (5.4)|
|Abraham Garcia||RT||6'5, 347||So.||*** (5.6)|
|Chase Petersen||LG||6'4, 295||So.||*** (5.5)|
|Mike Romano||C||6'4, 293||So.||*** (5.5)|
|Aaron Epps||LT||6'7, 279||So.||*** (5.5)|
|Josh Stearns||LG||6'1, 285||So.||NR|
|T.C. Klusman||C||6'3, 272||RSFr.||*** (5.6)|
|Q1 Rk||84||1st Down Rk||72|
|Q2 Rk||111||2nd Down Rk||114|
|Q3 Rk||65||3rd Down Rk||95|
6. So, about that defense
Over the last six seasons, 47 of 60 teams ranking in the overall F/+ top 10 -- a signifier of truly elite or nearly-elite play -- have ranked in the top 15 of Def. F/+. Another eight have ranked between 16th and 19th. Only five teams have ranked worse than 19th and still found their way into the top 10 overall, and most of them still had damn good defenses: 2007 Missouri (22nd), 2012 Oklahoma (23rd), 2010 Virginia Tech (25th), 2007 Florida (50th), and 2011 Wisconsin (52nd).
So to finish in the top 10, you either have to figure out how to get into the Def. F/+ top 25 (preferably the top 15 or 16), or you have to have by far the best offense in the country, as 2007 Florida and 2011 Wisconsin did. In three years under Charlie Strong, Louisville has ranked 45th, 46th, and 48th in Def. F/+. The latter course might be the more likely option.
Strong's defenses are far from bad. And considering the youth on last year's squad, this should absolutely be considered his best Cardinal attack thus far; last year's six leading tacklers on the line return, as do six of seven linebackers and five of six defensive backs. And while Strong's overall recruiting prowess has probably been overstated (the classes have been rather top-heavy, and the Cardinals rank just 49th in two-year recruiting overall), there are still some pretty impressive youngsters trying to work their way into the rotation at each level of the defense. So yes, this defense will be somewhere between above average and pretty good. Is that good enough?
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Marcus Smith||DE||6'3, 252||Sr.||*** (5.6)||13||22.5||3.3%||7||4||1||2||2||0|
|Brandon Dunn||DT||6'3, 300||Sr.||*** (5.5)||13||22.0||3.3%||2||2||0||2||0||0|
|Deiontrez Mount||DE||6'5, 234||Jr.||*** (5.6)||13||18.5||2.7%||4||2.5||0||1||0||0|
|Roy Philon||DT||6'3, 291||Sr.||** (5.3)||13||18.5||2.7%||4||2.5||0||0||0||0|
|Lorenzo Mauldin||DE||6'4, 243||Jr.||*** (5.6)||11||16.5||2.4%||6.5||4.5||0||1||1||2|
|Jamaine Brooks||NT||6'4, 330||Jr.||** (5.1)||12||13.5||2.0%||1.5||0||0||0||0||0|
|B.J. Dubose||DT||6'5, 287||Jr.||*** (5.7)||7||10.0||1.5%||0.5||0||0||1||0||0|
|DeAngelo Brown||NT||6'1, 318||So.||*** (5.5)||7||9.0||1.3%||1||0||0||0||0||0|
|Sheldon Rankins||DE||6'2, 287||So.||*** (5.7)||10||4.5||0.7%||1||1||0||0||0||0|
|Nick Dawson||DE||6'3, 261||RSFr.||**** (5.9)|
|Pedro Sibiea||DT||6'3, 301||RSFr.||*** (5.5)|
|Stacy Thomas||DE||6'1, 237||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
|De'asian Richardson||DE||6'3, 285||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Preston Brown||MLB||6'2, 260||Sr.||*** (5.6)||13||80.5||11.9%||3||0||1||4||0||0|
|Keith Brown||SLB||6'1, 235||So.||**** (5.8)||11||39.0||5.8%||2.5||0||0||0||1||1|
|George Durant||MLB||6'0, 245||Sr.||** (5.2)||13||27.5||4.1%||4.5||0.5||0||2||1||0|
|James Burgess||WLB||6'0, 215||So.||*** (5.6)||10||19.0||2.8%||2||0||2||0||0||0|
|Champ Lee||SLB||6'0, 215||Sr.||** (5.3)||13||11.0||1.6%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Deon Rogers||WLB||6'2, 194||Sr.||*** (5.6)||13||10.0||1.5%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Lamar Atkins||MLB||5'11, 216||RSFr.||** (5.2)|
|James Hearns||LB||6'3, 225||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
7. It starts up front
Louisville's pass defense was decent last year, and the secondary was downright solid considering it didn't get much help from the pass rush. But the line struggled to either get a push in the pass rush or avoid getting pushed in the run game. The Cardinals ranked 90th in Rushing S&P+, 89th in Adj. Line Yards, and 99th in Stuff Rate. Against the run, they neither made plays nor prevented opponents from doing the same. Now, the rotation was made up almost entirely of sophomores and juniors, so experience should be a strength this year. But experience only matters if talent is also involved.
While the end position could get a boost from both the return of decent pass rushers Marcus Smith and Lorenzo Mauldin and the inclusion of youngsters like Nick Dawson and Stacy Thomas (Dawson has moved to linebacker in fall camp, but that could be a temporary thing because of an injury to linebacker Keith Brown), the tackle position is still a question mark. There aren't any former star recruits at the position, and it just really didn't accomplish very much last year. If Louisville's D is going to move toward the top 25, the tackles must improve, and I don't see that they will very much.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Calvin Pryor||FS||6'2, 208||Jr.||*** (5.7)||13||76.0||11.3%||2.5||1||2||5||5||1|
|Hakeem Smith||SS||6'1, 179||Sr.||** (5.2)||13||56.5||8.4%||2||0||0||7||1||1|
|Terell Floyd||CB||5'10, 201||Jr.||*** (5.6)||13||32.0||4.7%||3||2||3||5||1||1|
|Jermaine Reve||SS||6'0, 180||So.||*** (5.5)||13||27.0||4.0%||4.5||1||0||1||0||0|
|Andrew Johnson||CB||5'9, 186||Jr.||**** (5.8)||12||23.5||3.5%||1.5||0||1||2||0||1|
|Stephan Robinson||CB||5'10, 165||Jr.||*** (5.6)||10||5.0||0.7%||0||0||0||1||0||0|
|Gerod Holliman||FS||6'0, 201||So.||**** (5.8)||3||1.5||0.2%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Charles Gaines||CB||5'11, 174||So.||*** (5.7)|
|Devontre Parnell||CB||5'11, 174||RSFr.||*** (5.7)|
|Kevin Houchins||CB||5'11, 184||RSFr.||*** (5.5)|
|Richard Benjamin||CB||6'0, 199||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
|Charles Williams||CB||6'2, 180||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
8. The secondary is thin but stable
Strong and defensive coordinator Vance Bedford use their safeties pretty aggressively; Calvin Pryor, Hakeem Smith, and Jermaine Reve combined for nine tackles for loss and 15 passes defensed last year. All three return, as does cornerback Terell Floyd. Adrian Bushell's on-ball defending will be missed, but the secondary should hold up, especially if it gets further contributions from former star recruits (Andrew Johnson, Gerod Holliman) and/or interesting youngsters.
With 1.5 tackles last year, Holliman is the next most experienced safety on the roster after the three mentioned above, and depth could be a serious issue if the youngsters aren't ready for playing time, but for now this looks like a solid unit, one good enough to thrive if there's any improvement up front.
|Ryan Johnson||5'11, 199||Jr.||49||39.4||6||14||20||69.4%|
|Joshua Appleby||6'3, 219||So.||2||42.0||0||0||1||50.0%|
|John Wallace||6'0, 196||So.||62||60.5||4||6.5%|
|Joshua Appleby||6'3, 219||So.||17||58.1||1||5.9%|
|John Wallace||6'0, 196||So.||38-42||14-14||100.0%||2-7||28.6%|
|Matthew Nakatani||5'8, 172||Jr.||3-3||1-1||100.0%||1-1||100.0%|
|Senorise Perry||KR||6'0, 187||Sr.||7||19.6||0|
|Kai De La Cruz||PR||6'0, 186||Jr.||21||4.7||0|
|Special Teams F/+||115|
|Field Goal Pct||34|
|Kick Returns Avg||122|
|Punt Returns Avg||111|
9. Might want to clean up special teams, huh?
On average, special teams makes up 10 to 15 percent of a given outcome. You can survive without good special teams, but it's a handicap. Of the 60 top-10 F/+ teams referenced above, only five ranked worse than 63rd in Special Teams F/+ in a given year. So yeah, the fact that Louisville was pretty awful at punting, kickoffs, kick coverage, and all returns is, to say the least, a bit of a hindrance. And the fact that almost every contributor from this unit returns isn't necessarily a good thing.
2013 Schedule & Projection Factors
|26-Oct||at South Florida||67|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||57|
|Two-Year Recruiting Rk||49|
|TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||+11 / +5.9|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||18 (8, 10)|
10. Lord knows the schedule cooperates
I've spent a good portion of my offseason talking about how overrated Louisville and Ohio State are in terms of projections versus convention wisdom. But both the Buckeyes and Cardinals benefit from schedules that might disguise deficiencies most of the way. Louisville's home schedule consists of an FCS opponent and teams projected to rank 48th, 55th, 58th, 76th, 101st, and 116th. And while Rutgers could be underrated at 48th, if it's your toughest home opponent, you've got a cakey home schedule. Meanwhile, the first four road opponents are projected 53rd, 64th, 67th, and 84th. This schedule is almost Conference USA-caliber.
So yeah, if Louisville is only a top-25 team or so, the Cardinals could still very well be undefeated heading to Cincinnati on December 5. The thing is, a top-25 team is still pretty likely to slip up along the way. I think USF is going to be much better than its No. 67 projection, and Louisville lost to UConn at home last year. Maybe the Cards lose one of those games, or maybe they slip up to Rutgers. Maybe Mark Stoops' first Kentucky team pulls off a big upset early on. None of these specific things are likely, but one of them will probably happen. And I certainly think Cincinnati might be good enough to not only take down the Cardinals but win the conference in the process.
Again, this all comes down to expectations. I think Louisville is likely to go 10-2 and improve to around 15th or 20th in the F/+ rankings. That's a really good year, especially for a program that was 4-8 just four years ago and 7-6 two years ago. I thought I was actually being pretty bullish and optimistic about the Cards right up until they beat Florida and surged straight from "pretty good and improving" to "Tim Brando's national title pick."
Teddy Bridgewater is probably the best pro-style quarterback in the country, his offense should perform at a top-5 or top-10 level despite a mediocre line, and the defense should at least be the best of the Strong era. But about 25 things have to go right for Louisville to indeed contend for the national title. Everything could fall into place, but odds are very much against it, even with that schedule.