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Give Scott Satterfield time to clean up Bobby Petrino’s mess

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Satterfield’s App State was one of the best-run programs in college football, but he’s got a lot of work ahead at Louisville.

Central Arkansas v Louisville
Scott Satterfield
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

If you write about a sport for a decent length of time, you’ll find that you’re wrong a lot. And if you write an every-team, every-offseason preview series for nearly a decade, you’re going to end up wrong more times than you can count. Hopefully you’re right even more, but the volume of wrongness will be impressive after a while.

I’m not sure I’ve ever been more wrong than I was when writing last year’s ACC previews.

In 2016, the ACC reached its 21st-century peak. The league boasted the national champion (Clemson) and the Heisman winner (Lamar Jackson), and it featured seven of S&P+’s top 23 teams and the best overall S&P+ average. That average went up in 2017 (though the SEC jumped past it for No. 1 again), and while it was clear that Clemson was the league’s only national title contender heading into 2018, I thought the ACC might still be the deepest conference in college football*.

The thing that most caught my eye while writing this year’s batch of ACC previews is that every single team in this league has top-40 potential.

I declared Miami’s Ahmmon Richards the best offensive player in the league. I declared the league might not have a single bad team. I even declared Syracuse and Virginia the two teams in which I had the least confidence.

Wrong, wrong, and wrong. Richards retired from football early in the season due to nonstop injuries, Syracuse and Virginia were just about the league’s only overachievers, and ... well ... the league had some bad football teams.

I also ranked Louisville fifth in my preseason ACC power rankings. In retrospect, this was the most damning error of all. Behold:

My logic in showing some faith in Louisville post-Jackson was simple: teams almost never collapse the way Louisville would end up collapsing in 2018. Sure, Jackson was gone. Sure, head coach Bobby Petrino couldn’t find any proven defensive coaches to work with him, so he went with former Notre Dame and Georgia punching bag Brian VanGorder. But Louisville would only need the defense to be mediocre, because Petrino doesn’t field bad offenses, Jackson or no Jackson.

Petrino fielded a bad offense.

The defense was infinitely worse than mediocre.

What we saw from Louisville in 2018 was almost unprecedented. Insert your favorite adjective. It was glorious. Incredible. Stupendous. Awe-inspiring.

Even Vegas couldn’t keep up with the level of collapse. Every time it lowered expectations, the Cardinals dug an even deeper hole. They underachieved against the spread by 12.3 points per game in September, then 19.5 in October and 21.4 in November. They gave up 50 or more points seven times and scored more than 24 points on a power conference defense just once. They fell from 47th to 99th in Def. S&P+ and from second to 102nd in Off. S&P+. Their last four losses came by an average of 45 points.

You have to give Petrino credit for one thing: he left no doubt. Teams rise and fall, and really good coaches can weather a bad year. But despite the fact that he had averaged 8.5 wins per year from 2014-17 and brought the school its first Heisman winner, Petrino gave new athletic director Vince Tyra certainty. Petrino had seemingly quit on the team, the team had definitely quit on him, and it was time for a change.

If nothing else, Satterfield has a low bar to clear in his first year in town. Just cover the spread a couple of times, and that’ll be a sign of progress.

Satterfield comes to Louisville from Appalachian State, where he built one of the most competent mid-major programs. Despite Sun Belt membership and an obvious lack of resources compared to power conference programs, the Mountaineers ranked in the S&P+ top 60 in each of his last four seasons and jumped to 29th in 2018. Their defenses were somewhere between good and great. Their offenses weren’t incredibly creative, but they were physical beyond their recruiting weight class. They were well-rounded and confident, and they never defeated themselves — you had to knock them out.

Satterfield leaves one of the healthiest cultures in FBS for Petrino’s finest roster wreckage yet (and for all of his career successes, he has tended to leave wreckage behind). I assume the goal for 2019 will be a lack of implosions. We likely won’t see a lot of risks, just a team that is learning to play more physically and trying to avoid soul-crushing errors.

S&P+ sees a four-win team that improves slightly on both sides of the ball. I don’t see a situation in which wins actually matter this year. But then again, what the hell do I know? I thought Louisville would be fine last year.

Offense

The 2018 offense never had a chance. It was led by a sophomore quarterback with 33 career passes (Jawon Pass), and when he struggled endlessly, a freshman (Malik Cunningham) subbed in. Cunningham led the team in rushing, and another freshman (Hassan Hall) was second. Freshmen and sophomores caught 67 passes and started 28 of 60 games on the offensive line, too.

This offense was too young to succeed under any circumstances, but Pass’ total lack of development was jarring. The one thing we had come to count on with Petrino was quarterback development, but Pass’ passer rating was 97 in his first four games and 105.3 in his last four. He never found a rhythm, and Cunningham was far more advanced with his legs than his arm.

Louisville v Boston College
Jawon Pass
Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images

Either Pass, Cunningham, or incoming three-star freshman Evan Conley will start this fall. Considering the controlled success Taylor Lamb had at App State (he started from 2014-17), one assumes Satterfield won’t be afraid of going with youth, but Pass still has potential to unearth, and Cunningham might be the best athlete on the offense.

Whoever wins the job will spend a lot of time sticking the ball in a running back’s belly. App State was always one of the nation’s run-heaviest teams; the Mountaineers ran 67 percent of the time on standard downs last year (24th in FBS) and 44 percent on passing downs (10th), and while part of that was because they had the lead, a lot was by design.

Satterfield hired an old friend as his coordinator. Dwayne Ledford served as App’s line coach from 2012-15 before joining Dave Doeren’s NC State staff as line coach and run game coordinator. Granted, NC State’s run game often appeared uncoordinated (the Wolfpack were 104th in rushing marginal efficiency last year), but it’s safe to say Ledford and Satterfield click pretty well philosophically.

Cunningham aside, there isn’t much to like about Louisville’s running prospects this fall. Hall was the “leader” at running back but carried only 70 times for 303 yards (4.3 per carry) with a 37 percent success rate. Another sophomore, Colin Wilson, was probably the most effective runner (he had a 44 percent success rate and a 32-yard run against Kentucky) but carried only 39 times. Meanwhile, an ineffective line loses basically 2.5 starters.

Louisville v Syracuse
Dez Fitzpatrick (7) and TuTu Atwell (1)
Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

There will be plenty of second- or third-and-longs in Louisville’s future, but the good news is that, if a QB is capable of getting them the ball, the receiving corps has potential. Junior Dez Fitzpatrick and sophomore TuTu Atwell combined for 55 catches, 828 yards (15.1 per catch), and five touchdowns last year, which are pretty great numbers, all things considered.

Seniors Devante Peete and Seth Dawkins return, as well, and youngsters like sophomore Marcus Riley and redshirt freshman Tyler Harrell might still have some potential despite minimal contribution last year.

Defense

For a while, Petrino actually had things going defensively. With Todd Grantham running the defense, the Cardinals were ninth in Def. S&P+ in 2014 and 15th in 2016, but they slipped to 47th in 2017, after Grantham had left, and then collapsed last year. The combination of VanGorder and a helpless offense created a pretty hopeless situation.

Help is on the way. Satterfield tapped Bryan Brown, App State’s 2018 coordinator, as his new DC. It made sense, as Brown’s 2018 defense was dynamite. The Mountaineers gave you nothing, finishing ninth in marginal efficiency, third in marginal explosiveness, ninth in points allowed per scoring opportunity, and, after adjusting for opponent, 20th in overall Def. S&P+.

NCAA Football: Indiana State at Louisville
Cornelius Sturghill (3) and Tabarius Peterson (98)
Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

They weren’t incredibly aggressive (46th in stuff rate, 53rd in sack rate) — they simply prepared, pursued, and didn’t miss tackles.

Satterfield and Brown are bringing a ringer with them, too. Linebacker T.J. Holl, the Patriot League defensive player of the year and the leader of a Colgate defense that allowed just 9.3 points per game, is a grad transfer.

Any identity Brown, Holl, and company can bring would be welcome, as Louisville was good at almost literally nothing last year. The defense made almost no plays (127th in stuff rate, 120th in sack rate, 130th in havoc rate) and didn’t prevent many (89th in marginal explosiveness). They bring back almost everyone from last year’s sophomore-heavy unit, but since nobody proved even slightly disruptive, it’s hard to figure out where the potential lies.

NCAA Football: Colgate at Army
T.J. Holl (21)
Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive ends Tabarius Peterson and Amonte Caban did manage a combined 13.5 tackles for loss and four sacks, and sophomore ends Jarrett Jackson and Malik Clark added five TFLs among their 14.5 tackles. Junior linebacker Dorian Etheridge combined four TFLs with four pass breakups. Sophomore cornerback Anthony Johnson had two TFLs and three passes defensed in minimal action.

Maybe there’s some upside, but competition will be the watchword this fall. Having Holl to set an example might not be the worst thing.

Special Teams

The Cardinals fell from 39th to 70th in Special Teams S&P+, though compared to everything else, this was a strength. Hell, kicker Blanton Creque and punt returner Rodjay Burns might have been the team’s two best players, which is unfortunate, considering the number of scoring and punt return opportunities UL failed to produce. Still, that they’re both back is a boost the team could use.

2019 outlook

2019 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep Notre Dame 12 -19.3 13%
7-Sep Eastern Kentucky NR 29.5 96%
14-Sep vs. Western Kentucky 101 5.9 63%
21-Sep at Florida State 28 -16.1 18%
5-Oct Boston College 72 -0.9 48%
12-Oct at Wake Forest 62 -8.4 31%
19-Oct Clemson 3 -30.1 4%
26-Oct Virginia 41 -8.1 32%
9-Nov at Miami 19 -19.2 13%
16-Nov at N.C. State 47 -11.5 25%
23-Nov Syracuse 56 -4.8 39%
30-Nov at Kentucky 37 -14.0 21%
Projected S&P+ Rk 87
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 86 / 78
Projected wins 4.0
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 12.6 (24)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 58
2018 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -12 / -10.2
2018 TO Luck/Game -0.7
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 74% (69%, 79%)
2018 Second-order wins (difference) 1.7 (0.3)

Holl. Creque. Maybe Caban or cornerback Cornelius Sturghill. Maybe Peete or Dawkins. McCoy if he sticks.

I just listed all of this team’s impact seniors.

The best thing I can say about this year’s Louisville team is that, whatever progress Satterfield and his staff can unearth, most of the reasons for it will return in 2020 and potentially 2021. Petrino’s two-deep became a smoking crater almost overnight, but that will continue to mean plenty of opportunity for youngsters.

The Cardinals would have to overachieve by quite a bit to do much damage this fall. Eastern Kentucky visits, and UL will play Western Kentucky in Nashville. Maybe they snare an upset or two in visits from Boston College, Syracuse, and Virginia. But S&P+ projects about four wins this fall, and that feels almost optimistic.

Again, though, win totals don’t matter in Year Zero. The goal is to find some answers. The odds are good that Satterfield will find some, but history shows us that he doesn’t mind taking his time. After all, while he finished his App State tenure on a 46-11 run, he started 5-13.

Team preview stats

All 2019 preview data to date.