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Strong building something special with Cardinals

There weren't many people, perhaps not any, that gave Louisville much of a chance in the Sugar Bowl a year ago.

Though the Cardinals were ranked No. 22 in the country, sported a 10-2 record and had dominated their league schedule, it was just unthinkable that a team from the diluted Big East could hang with a squad from the mighty Southeastern Conference.

However that is exactly what happened. In fact not only did Louisville hang with then No. 4 Florida, the Cardinals dominated en route to a 33-23 victory. It may not have been on the same level as Boise State's upset of Oklahoma in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl, but it certainly made a statement.

That statement being that Louisville isn't just a team that can compete for Big East titles but possibly national crowns.

Many of the powerhouse teams are led by strong and recognizable coaches. Last year was certainly a coming out party for Charlie Strong whose no nonsense approach and dedication to the defensive side of the ball was key for Louisville.

In his first two seasons at the helm, Strong built a solid foundation by guiding Louisville to back-to-back 7-6 seasons and bowl appearances. However in 2012 the groundwork laid down in those first two seasons really began to pay off as Strong earned the Big East Co-Coach of the Year award.

One of the most important developments in 2012 was the rise of quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who was named the Big East Offensive Player of the Year. In just his sophomore season Bridgewater, who is one of the players on the squad from Strong's first recruiting class, was unbelievably productive. Bridgewater threw for 3,718 yards and 27 touchdowns, completing an impressive 68.5 percent of his pass attempts. Each of those numbers were the best since 2007 when Brian Brohm was under center for the Cardinals.

Bridgewater is a microcosm for the squad as a whole. Last season he was expected to play well but obviously exceeded expectations. Now he enters this season on a short list of Heisman candidates and a player many think could be taken in the first round of next year's NFL Draft.

It's not just at quarterback that Louisville returns on the offensive side of the ball. Strong has said that he believes his receiving corps this year to be the strength of the football team.

With a host of dynamic playmakers like Devante Parker (40 receptions, 744 yards, 10 TDs), Eli Rogers (46 receptions, 505 yards, 4 TDs) and Damian Copeland (50 receptions, 628 yards, 2 TDs), Strong's opinion is far from unfounded.

"That is every quarterback's dream, ball fetchers," Bridgewater said of the litany of weapons he will be throwing to on Saturdays. "Those guys bring excitement to the offense."

While the offense certainly has plenty returning, the other side of the field also shares in an embarrassment of returning riches. Of the 19 starters returning for Louisville, 10 come on the defensive side of the ball.

That type of experience back on the field is a monumental advantage for a team that already excelled in slowing teams down last season. Louisville was ranked No. 23 in the country in total defense (340.3 ypg) in 2012 and could be even better in 2013.

Last season's lead tackler Preston Brown (109 tackles) will be the anchor for the unit as Strong indicates his hopes for the senior linebacker to take on a more vocal leadership role.

"We expect a lot out of Preston Brown," Strong said. "Preston is a starter and has been a starter for three years and I just expect him to now become the leader of the defense."

That's saying quite a lot for a team that has a long list of players that could very well be considered the 'leader' of the defense.

Case in point is safety Calvin Pryor, who also got to the century mark in tackles last season (100).

Then there's cornerback Hakeem Smith, who is fresh off a Second-Team All-Big East selection, the third time he has received all-conference honors.

Finally there is leading pass rusher Lorenzo Mauldin. The 6-foot-4 defensive end is a bit undersized for the position at 242 pounds, but still managed a team-high 4.5 sacks. The lack of bulk for Mauldin isn't an issue for Strong, who has been impressed with Mauldin's work ethic.

"I don't know if there is a player on our team that goes harder than him. You can tell (him) to slow down (but) he doesn't know what slow means," Strong said.

Even with proven commodities all over the field there will still be detractors of Louisville.

During a sensational 2012 season, Louisville didn't play the same type of schedule that national title contenders like Alabama and Oregon did. The Cardinals were 73rd out of 124 teams at the FBS level in strength of schedule (-1.96) according to sports-reference.com and did not face a ranked program until the Sugar Bowl.

The schedule isn't exactly laced with a ton of major challenges again this season with the Cardinals' biggest non-conference contest on the road against intrastate rival Kentucky.

Strong isn't giving credence to any of the doubts against his team though. After a strong start to the 2013 calendar year, not just for the football program but Louisville athletics in general, Strong sees this year as one that will be painted red.

"There are a lot of people who believe 13 is an unlucky number. This year, 2013, has proven to be very lucky for the Cardinals," Strong said. "(We) have proven that '13 is just the right number for the Cardinals."

When asked by a reporter during his pre-spring game press conference if the Cardinals were going for 13 wins in '13, Strong let out a laugh. However he also said "If we stay humble and stay hungry there is no telling where this team can go."

Perhaps how far they will travel is uncertain but 13 wins would definitely be the extreme, a national championship level extreme.