LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Louisville and the Cardinals junior quarterback Teddy Bridgewater have a tough act to follow this season.
They consider last year's 11-2 finish and 33-23 Sugar Bowl upset of Florida as proof of what happens when everybody executes. Given little chance of hanging with the heavily favored Gators on Jan. 2, Louisville dominated to earn the program's biggest BCS bowl victory and spur the school's stellar athletic run including an NCAA men's basketball title.
The Cardinals will need a similar effort as they begin the season ranked ninth in the preseason coaches' poll and favored to win the American Athletic Conference, formerly known as the Big East.
Expectations are just as high for Bridgewater, mentioned as a Heisman Trophy candidate and on watch lists for numerous national awards.
Asked last week about those hopes, Bridgewater said, "I think we're handling them well. We're ready for them. We put ourselves in this situation and we're up to the challenge."
After sharing the Big East championship the past two years, Louisville seeks the title outright in its lone season in the newly-remade AAC before heading to the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Cardinals seriously believe they're capable of achieving that quest and more but are keeping their confidence in check by reminding themselves that there's still room for improvement.
"What you don't want is allow them to become complacent, cocky and self-absorbed, which is easy to do when you hear so much and get patted on the back," fourth-year coach Charlie Strong said. "This will be one of the toughest jobs we've ever had in how we control this football team."
Bridgewater certainly believes he can grow, even after moving into the top tier of quarterbacks by passing for 3,718 yards and 27 touchdowns. He completed 68.5% of his attempts and tossed just eight interceptions and is working toward becoming the "perfect" passer.
A veteran receiving corps returns to help his mission, while running back Senorise Perry (705 yards, 11 touchdowns) aims to bounce back from a torn right anterior cruciate ligament. The backfield got a little deeper last week with the addition of Michael Dyer, who rushed for 2,335 yards in two seasons with Auburn and helped the Tigers win the BCS national championship three years ago.
Louisville's defense meanwhile strives to build on a Sugar Bowl performance highlighted by three turnovers including an interception return for a touchdown on the game's first play. Bridgewater and the Cardinals went on to complete what Strong called a "statement game" for the program, but he notes that plenty of work remains before they become part of the national discussion.
Here are the five things to watch as Louisville seeks an encore:
1. TEDDY BRIDGEWATER: The Miami native is taking all the recognition in stride but he obviously wants to prove last year's breakout performance was no fluke. To that end he's working on flaws in his game while solidifying chemistry with everybody on offense to make sure the Cardinals are on point every play. Bridgewater is also becoming more vocal in practice and seems comfortable with the media, a good thing considering he could frequently be in the spotlight this season.
2. MICHAEL DYER: He hasn't played since 2011 with Auburn, but rust shouldn't be an issue for the former Tigers running back. With Senorise Perry and Dominique Brown returning from knee injuries, Dyer could be a great addition if he's anything close to the rusher he was at Auburn. And given another chance to resume his career after disciplinary missteps at Auburn and Arkansas State, he'd be crazy to blow it in a program with zero tolerance for foolishness.
3. CENTRAL RECEIVING: Louisville returns three of Bridgewater's favorite targets in wide receivers DeVante Parker, Damian Copeland and Eli Rogers. The QB could have even more options to choose from in tight end Ryan Hubbell, 6-foot-5 Tennessee transfer Matt Milton and freshman James Quick.
4. UPWARD BOUND: Louisville's defense views its smashmouth Sugar Bowl performance against Florida as a template that coordinator Vance Bedford aims to enhance with a more aggressive approach including a focus on better tackling.
5. DON'T LOOK AHEAD: The Cardinals can't look past anybody after losing at home to Connecticut last year and having to rally to beat South Florida, FIU and Cincinnati. All but FIU are road games this year. Louisville also faces unknowns with new AAC members Central Florida, Houston and Memphis.
Predicted finish in the AAC: First.
AP college football site: http://collegefootball.ap.org/