With the football season less than 11 weeks away, it is never too soon to begin to look at the opponents that will try to derail the Clemson Tigers’ quest for a second-consecutive national championship and their third appearance in the College Football Playoff in as many years.
Today, we continue our series with the Tigers’ third opponent—the Louisville Cardinals.
The Cardinals caught the eyes of the nation after beating Florida State 63-20, and kept on rolling to a 9-1 record—their only loss coming in a 42-36 nail biter against Clemson. But those nine wins would be all the Cardinals would amass, losing three straight games to end the regular season
Bobby Petrino had the nation talking about Louisville as a possible at-large contender for the College Football Playoff until they seemingly imploded over the final two weeks of the season—losing to Houston and Kentucky, before losing in the Citrus Bowl to complete the trifecta.
The Cardinal head coach has amassed a 26-13 overall record (17-7 ACC) since returning to Louisville, where he coached from 2003-2006. But even with two third place finishes and tying for the division title last season with Clemson, the pressure is now on Petrino to produce an ACC Championship.
Led by the Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson, the Louisville offense spent much of last season putting up video game numbers on opponents through the first 10 games, but all of that came to an end over their final three games—in which, they scored 10, 38, and nine points all in losses.
Jackson returns this season, but the dynamic offense that lit up scoreboards through the first 10 games does not.
Gone from last year’s squad are the top three receivers, including James Quick—and also leaving the program is tight end Cole Hikutini. The Cardinals do return wide receiver Reggie Bonnafon and Jaylen Smith, and will look to Seth Dawkins to step up and become a go-to receiver early on.
“You know, one of the things we’ll have back in the fall that we didn’t have in spring was Jaylen Smith,” Petrino said. “Jaylen was a guy that made a lot of big plays for us last year. He’s just under 6’4″, 218 pounds, and has great speed and hands. Seth Dawkins has become our other go-to receiver on the other side of the field. Seth also is very big and fast and physical, and I think we’re just now seeing how good and how much skill he really does have.
The Louisville defense returns nine starters, but the problem for the Cardinals is these are nine of the 11 players that couldn’t stop anyone for the majority of the season—ranking 31st in the nation in scoring defense, 37th in pass defense and allowed 49 plays of 20 yards-or-more last season.
First-year defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon will be charged with finding some key replacements for the two defensive stars that are no longer on the team—top tackler Keith Kelsey and safety Josh Harvey-Clemmons.
But it is the new life that has been bred into the defensive side of the ball that has Petrino excited.
“It was fun to see our new defensive staff and what they were doing out there. We were able to get some guys off the injury list that came out and played, and showed they’ll be back, and that’ll help us a lot,” Petrino said. “We were able to get a lot of the new schemes in and how we would utilize our personnel within it. It’s still a work in progress…but I thought they did a good job.”
In a game that has gone down the wire in each of their first three meetings, the pundits in Las Vegas are once again believing that this year’s contest will go down to the wire.
The only game in which the Tigers are currently not favored to win, Las Vegas has Louisville as an early two-point favorite over their division rivals and defending national champions.