clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

2011 Season Preview: The Louisville Cardinals And The Value Of Experience

Charlie Strong pulled a Steve Lavin last fall, executing a lovely turnaround with an extremely experienced squad. Can he nail the encore with a younger squad?

Getty Images

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom.

On November 2, 2006, Louisville defeated No. 3 West Virginia, 44-34 (this time lapse tells the tale), to move to 8-0 and third in the country.  With the top two teams -- Michigan and Ohio State -- playing each other in the coming weeks and no other undefeated teams in the Top 10, the Cardinals had a clear path to the national title game.  The next week, fellow undefeated Rutgers knocked them off on a Thursday night.  It was, almost literally, one steady downhill slide for the next four years.

Before Bobby Petrino ditched the Atlanta Falcons fans to call the hogs, he seemed to endlessly flirt with other positions and schools as Louisville coach.  When we went to the 2004 Liberty Bowl -- a great, great game, from the touchdown-per-play first quarter, to the Little Richard halftime show, to the Michael Bush-heavy fourth quarter -- Petrino was only in his second year on the job after following John L. Smith, and quite a few Louisville fans we met were already ready for him to leave because of the flirtations.  He finally did depart two years later, jumping up to the NFL so he could ditch the Falcons too, but he took the wins with him.  Steve Kragthorpe, engineer of a lovely building job at Tulsa, took over, and it just never clicked.  Louisville fell from 12 wins in 2006, to six in 2007, to five, and to four.  By the end of 2009, it was not only easy to forget what Smith and Petrino had built at Louisville ... it was downright hard to remember.

It's amazing what a seemingly great hire can do to improve the mood.  For years, Charlie Strong's name was never uttered without the words "Why won't somebody hire..." preceding it.  A strong defensive coordinator for Lou Holtz at South Carolina and both Ron Zook and Urban Meyer at Florida, Strong paid his dues, to say the least.  Finally, at age 49, after 27 years as an assistant coach, Strong got a shot as Louisville's 21st head coach.

Early returns?  Outstanding.  Like Steve Lavin at St. John's, Strong inherited an experienced team of Petrino and early-Kragthorpe leftovers and was able to offer significant, immediate improvement on both sides of the ball.  His success prompted this Varsity Numbers column about race and college head coaches (and this NPR story), one of my favorites.  But this year's encore will come with a much younger squad.  The test has only just begun.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 7-6 | Adj. Record: 6-7 | Final F/+ Rk**: 40
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
4-Sep Kentucky 16-23 L 12.7 - 30.6 L
11-Sep Eastern Kentucky
23-13 W 22.3 - 30.2 L
18-Sep at Oregon State 28-35 L 30.0 - 35.6 L
2-Oct at Arkansas State 34-24 W 32.2 - 30.3 W
9-Oct Memphis 56-0 W 48.2 - 19.8 W
16-Oct Cincinnati 27-35 L 32.5 - 37.5 L
23-Oct Connecticut 26-0 W 27.6 - 17.0 W
30-Oct at Pittsburgh 3-20 L 13.4 - 21.2 L
6-Nov at Syracuse 28-20 W 35.1 - 23.8 W
13-Nov South Florida 21-24 L 28.7 - 14.6 W
20-Nov West Virginia 10-17 L 11.2 - 17.6 L
26-Nov at Rutgers 40-13 W 45.4 - 27.2 W
21-Dec vs Southern Miss 31-28 W 25.3 - 26.4 L
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 26.4 63 19.4 18
Adj. Points Per Game 28.0 56 25.5 46

Despite a boatload of seniors, Strong's first squad at Louisville somewhat played like a young one -- ups and downs, ups and downs, ups and downs.  The offense peaked with above-average performances in five straight games from Oregon State to Connecticut but otherwise suffered from some cratering.  Meanwhile, the defense's performance trended toward improvement overall, but only so much; in the process, they still got lit up by teams like Cincinnati and Oregon State, and their raw defensive numbers did benefit a decent amount from a weak set of opposing offenses.

Using Adj. Record, you can see how the season unfolded: a slow start (0-3) followed by above-average play the rest of the way (6-4 finish).  And we can see how Adj. Record tells us a different tale than full-season averages do.  They ranked 40th overall in F/+ because they looked good a lot, but they didn't look good in every game. They were a bit all-or-nothing, which is maybe to be expected in the first year under a new regime.


Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
OVERALL 42 45 47
RUSHING 30 33 31 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 56 54 58 47
Standard Downs 53 52 47 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 45 45 38 34
Redzone 31 45 18
Q1 Rk 41 1st Down Rk 40
Q2 Rk 11 2nd Down Rk 76
Q3 Rk 82 3rd Down Rk 45
Q4 Rk 109

Though Strong is given a due amount of credit for Louisville's quick turnaround, some of that should be shared with offensive coordinator Mike Sanford. An accomplished quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator, Sanford tried and failed to turn UNLV around as head coach from 2005-09 and landed on Strong's staff.  With an experienced lineup at his disposal, he quickly began to push the right buttons.  Louisville improved from 83rd in Off. S&P+ to 42nd, from 77th in Success Rate+ to 45th, and from 90th in PPP+ to 47th.  Running back Bilal Powell thrived (1,405 yards, 6.1 per carry, +11.6 Adj. POE, 11 TD) in Sanford's slightly-favor-the-run approach; leaning on Powell, Louisville was able to continue playing reasonably well after quarterback Adam Froman (1,633 yards, 7.5 per pass, 61% completion, 11 TD, 4 INT) went down in the Pittsburgh game.  Justin Burke (790 yards, 6.1 per pass, 58% completion, 10 TD, 3 INT) replaced Froman, and Louisville kept plugging forward.

The Cardinals' depth paid off last year, but here's the problem: Powell's gone, both Froman and Burke are gone, and four offensive line starters (six from the two-deep) are gone.  The training wheels are off now for Strong, Sanford and new quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson.

So who are the main replacements in the backfield?  We start with a relatively familiar name.  Running back Victor Anderson rushed for 1,047 yards (5.7 per carry, +10.6 Adj. POE) as a freshman in 2008 but fought injury after injury the last two years; he rushed for a combined 759 yards (5.0 per carry, -11.6 Adj. POE) while trying to recover his agility and burst.  If the spring game is any indication (and let's be honest, it rarely is), signs might point to full recovery in 2011.  Anderson ripped off a 55-yard touchdown and rushed for 72 yards on six carries.  He and sophomore Jeremy Wright (327 yards in 2010, 5.5 per carry, +8.9 Adj. POE, 4 TD) could make a lovely tandem if they can stay healthy (and to date, they haven't).

(My parentheses in that last paragraph were rather negative weren't they...)

At quarterback, it appears that former walk-on Will Stein might be able to hold off four-star true freshman Teddy Bridgewater for the starting job there unless Bridgewater makes up some serious ground over the summer.  Stein stands just 5-foot-10, but he started two games during Kragthorpe's desperate last season and was rather efficient this spring.  (He's also, uh, a pretty happy guy.)  At 6-foot-3, 190 pounds, Bridgewater is the future, but he spent much of this spring learning what he can and cannot get away with at the BCS level.  He threw two picks and had one rush for minus-21 yards in the spring game.  So yeah, Stein's the guy for now.

Other tidbits:

  • When you say that Louisville loses two primary receiving targets in Doug Beaumont and tight end Cameron Graham, it sounds a bit scary ... until you realize that Louisville strangely had five primary targets in 2010.  Beaumont and Graham were steady options with catch rates over 70%, but there is plenty of upside in tight end Josh Chichester (317 yards, 14.4 per catch, 63% catch rate, 5 TD) and receivers Josh Bellamy (401 yards, 13.8 per catch, 53% catch rate, 5 TD) and Andrell Smith (377 yards, 15.1 per catch, 46% catch rate, 3 TD).  Efficiency will obviously be the primary question mark; none of the three primary returnees had catch rates anywhere near those of Beaumont and Graham, and you want a couple of reliable options with a new quarterback.
  • The line has to be a concern, doesn't it?  The four lost starters include all-conference guard Mark Wetterer and second-team all-conference tackle Byron Stingily, and though we'll see in the Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit that the correlations between returning OL starters and success are not as strong as one might think, it's still not a good thing.  This spring was almost a comedy of injuries for Louisville; for a while, the Cardinals only had seven healthy linemen.


Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
OVERALL 51 43 60
RUSHING 68 61 68 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 46 24 58 83
Standard Downs 61 77 59 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 18 10 27 40
Redzone 64 36 81
Q1 Rk 72 1st Down Rk 59
Q2 Rk 70 2nd Down Rk 48
Q3 Rk 42 3rd Down Rk 30
Q4 Rk 20

Stats and coaches do agree sometimes.  Louisville opponents ran more frequently than average, on both standard downs and passing downs, electing to attack a decent front seven instead of an athletic, aggressive secondary.  The Cardinals struggled with big plays from time to time, but as with the offense, there was still significant improvement, especially in terms of efficiency.  Louisville improved from 94th to 43rd in Success Rate+ and from 114th to 24th in Passing Success Rate+.

Of course, as with the offense again, the primary sources of the turnaround are gone.  Cornerback Johnny Patrick earned all-conference honors with a lovely stat line -- 46.0 tackles, 6.5 TFL/sacks, 5 INT, 12 PBU; he's gone, as is fellow starter Bobby Burns (33.0 tackles, 3 PBU).  A healthy Darius Ashley (18.0 tackles, 3.0 TFL/sacks, 2 INT in eight games) should alleviate a bit of the worry, but the other starting spot is still completely up for grabs, it appears.

The other piece of UL's strong pass defense was the pass rush, but ends Malcolm Tatum and Rodney Gnat, who combined for 60.0 tackles, 17.5 TFL/sacks and four forced fumbles, are also gone.  B.J. Butler (21.0 tackles, 6.0 TFL/sacks) looked great for a freshman, but again, that still leaves another spot to replace.

Strong and defensive coordinator Vance Bedford are both outstanding defensive coaches, so chances are they'll put together at least a decent unit despite these losses, but it's hard to imagine the pass defense avoiding at least a bit of a step backwards.  If there's hope, it comes at the safety position, where strong safety Hakeem Smith (75.0 tackles, 6.0 TFL/sacks) earned all-conference honors as a redshirt freshman and free safety Shenard Holton (64.0 tackles, 2.0 TFL/ascks) looked solid as well.

Other tidbits:

  • While the pass defense could regress, the run defense should improve.  Linebacker Daniel Brown (48.5 tackles, 10.0 TFL/sacks as a sophomore) is back, as are two players who looked solid at MLB last year -- Dexter Heyman (39.5 tackles, 4.5 TFL/sacks) and Antwone Canady (22.5 tackles, 2 FR).  I'm intrigued by tackle Greg Scruggs as well.  He had just 11.5 tackles all season, but 5.5 were for a loss, and he managed to pick off a pass, break up another pass, force a fumble and recover two.  That's what you call maximizing your box score impact.
  • Don't expect Bedford to be the defensive coordinator for too long.  A long time defensive backs coach for everybody from Colorado State to Michigan to the Chicago Bears, Bedford was in charge of a couple of devastating Florida secondaries in 2008-09, and he obviously acquitted himself quite well as Strong's D.C. last year.  His first tenure as coordinator (Oklahoma State, 2005-06) was far from amazing, but he seems to be thriving under Strong's direction, and it probably won't be long until the 52-year old gets a shot at a head coaching gig.

Louisville's 2010 Season Set to Music

How about ten "strong" songs?

"Do Do Wap Is Strong In Here," Curtis Mayfield
"Hold On, Be Strong," Outkast
"Stronger Than Dirt," Grateful Dead
"Live Fast Die Strong," King Khan And The Shrines
"Only The Strong Survive," Too $hort
"Strong," Split Lip Rayfield
"Strong Animal," Castanets
"Strong Enough," Sheryl Crow (wait, how did that get on my iPod?)
"Stronger," Kanye West
"That's How Strong My Love Is," Otis Redding

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit


Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in this summer's
Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 66
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 54
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** +3 / +2.5
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 9 (3, 6)
Yds/Pt Margin***** -2.1

We're just a couple of steps away from the Big Dipper with Louisville's F/+ Progression chart there.  But I digress.

It truly was a jarring three-year regression for the Cardinals following Petrino's departure, but in just one season Strong and company were able to restore Louisville to the Big East average.  Unfortunately, things almost certainly get tougher in Year Two.  There are so many new pieces (and there were so many injuries in the spring that prevented in-depth looks at certain replacements), and the YPP margin suggests the Cardinals were a bit lucky last year.

I thought Strong was a wonderful hire, and with some of the recruiting battles he has been winning, it's safe to assume this program is on an upward trajectory.  But signs point to second-year regression.  It's common with teams that take a huge, one-year leap forward anyway, and when you look at the lack of experience involved, it becomes even more likely, even if correlations between experience and success are not as strong as we might think.  The schedule is pretty rough, with road trips to Kentucky, North Carolina, Cincinnati, West Virginia, UConn and South Florida, meaning Louisville will have to either sweep the home slate or pull an upset or two to reach another bowl.  It's certainly doable, but I'm thinking no amount of Will Stein Positivity™ can make Louisville too successful in 2011.




* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter.  For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

***** Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.