2013 SEASON IN REVIEW: The Louisville Cardinals closed out their stint in the American Athletic Conference with a stellar season, as Charlie Strong closed out his tenure with the team by leading it to a 12-1 overall finish. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, the one loss came midseason against UCF (38-35) and cost the team the AAC crown.
Solid play on was headlined by star quarterback Teddy Bridgewater on offense, and AAC Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smith on defense.
Louisville barely broke a sweat in the first half of the season, winning six straight games by double digits, before falling to the Knights in shootout fashion at home on Oct. 10.
To the team's credit, it got back to its winning ways with five consecutive victories to close out the regular season, including a thrilling 31-24 overtime decision at Cincinnati in the season finale.
Louisville kept the winning going in the Russell Athletic Bowl, trouncing Miami-Florida (36-9).
Combined with a stellar 2012, Louisville heads into the ACC with its best two- year record in school history at 23-3. Strong has moved on to the University of Texas as a result, opening the door for the return of former Louisville head man Bobby Petrino.
OFFENSE: Bridgewater was unable to live up to the hype that followed him to start the season, but his numbers were tremendous nonetheless, as he completed 71.0 percent of his passes, for 3,970 yards, with 31 touchdowns and just four interceptions.
Replacing one of UL's all-time greats won't be easy, although Petrino has confidence in sophomore Will Gardner. The 6-5, 226-pounder played in seven games last season and will be the team's field general heading into its ACC era.
"He (Gardner) can make all the throws you need to make," said Petrino at the ACC Kickoff. "He's got the arm strength. He's got a very quick release. We've got to continue to work on his footwork with his lower body, getting it in the right positions for his accuracy to be where we want it. But he's very coachable. He's a good student of the game, and he's a natural leader that the players have already learned to follow. He has no problem in leading and taking control of the offense."
The team does return a couple of veteran playmakers in seniors Dominique Brown and DeVante Parker. Brown was a second-team All-AAC selection in 2013, and led the team with 825 yards and eight TDs. Adding more depth is former Auburn Tiger Michael Dyer, who was used sparingly last season, but should have an expanded role this time around.
Parker was a first-team All-AAC selection last season and will be one of the ACC's top wideouts in 2014. He hauled in 55 balls a year ago, for 885 yards and 12 TDs.
Plenty of experience returns along the offensive line as well, led by a trio of All-AAC selections in senior center Jake Smith (6-4, 307), senior guard John Miller (6-2, 325) and senior tackle Jamon Brown (6-6, 350).
DEFENSE: The Cardinals led the nation in total defense a year ago, while finishing second nationally in scoring defense and fourth in pass efficiency defense. A lot of that had to do with the play of Smith, who earned first-team All-America honors, posting 41 tackles and a nation's best 14.5 sacks.
Unfortunately, the cupboard is a bit more bare on this side of the football heading into 2014, with only four starters returning. Smith isn't the only star no longer in the mix, as safety Calvin Pryor (75 tackles, three INTs) joined Smith as a first-round NFL Draft choice this past May.
The undeniable leader on defense this season should be senior end Lorenzo Mauldin. Following in Smith's footsteps, the 6-4, 244-pound Mauldin could vie for ACC Defensive Player of the Year honors, after posting 40 tackles and 9.5 sacks last season. Other defenders that Petrino will rely on this season include junior linebacker James Burgess (71 tackles, 7.0 TFL, one INT) and junior cornerback Charles Gaines (22 tackles, five INTs), who earned first- team All-AAC honors a year ago.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The kicking game returns intact for Louisville as both junior John Wallace and senior Ryan Johnson will reprise their roles. Wallace was 20- of-24 on field-goal attempts in 2013. Johnson averaged 41.2 yards per punt. Gaines is not only a talented cover corner, but also a strong return man, averaging just over 30 yards per kickoff a season ago, with one returned for a score.
OUTLOOK: The ACC is certainly a step up for the Cardinals, who are talented enough to compete in what looks to be a top-heavy Atlantic Division. The non- conference slate features what looks like just one potential trap in a Nov. 22 trip to South Bend to take on Notre Dame. The other non-ACC matchups should provide little trouble with Murray State, FIU and Kentucky on the docket.
Petrino has set the bar high in year one.
"Well, we're excited to be joining a conference that has the reigning national champion and a conference where just about every single individual award last year was won by somebody in the ACC. Our expectations are going to be high.
"I've always believed that you set expectations high. We have a group of young men that we're coaching that have been playing for a number of years that know how to prepare, that have played in big games, and know how to win.
"We expect to compete for a championship. That's what we want to get done. We do understand that you have to do that on an individual game basis and play one game at a time, focus on that game, and then each game is going to be very, very competitive."
The perfect litmus test in terms of the ACC comes in the season opener at home against the Miami Hurricanes. Other ACC foes to make their way to Papa John Cardinal Stadium include Wake Forest, NC State and defending national champion Florida State. Winning on the road will be where Louisville's fate is determined this season. The team will open its ACC road slate against Virginia, but a road trip in early October to Clemson will be daunting to say the least. Winning at Syracuse and Boston College won't be easy either.
Matching last year's 12-win total isn't likely, but this is a bowl eligible team. Petrino knows how to win and has a talented core of players, but the ACC isn't the AAC and Louisville may suffer a letdown in 2014 as a result.