After fielding a talented but young squad in a 2015 campaign which ended with an 8-5 record capped off by a win over Texas A&M in the Music City Bowl, Louisville now projects among the teams with the highest ceilings in 2016. After all, the Cardinals return a dynamic, dual-threat quarterback, a number of other offensive players, and the majority of last year’s defensive starters. The Cardinals’ problem will likely be that, as talented as they are, they will almost assuredly be overshadowed by division rivals FSU and Clemson, both of whom possess a higher upside.
Last year, UL finished the season ranked No. 49 in offensive S&P+, highlighted particularly by a rushing offense which came in at 24th in the nation. In 2016, the offensive production could soar even higher as both quarterbacks who played substantial minutes last year are back on this year’s team, supported by all but 18 of UL’s rushing yards and all of the receiving yards from last year’s team returning. Additionally, the Cardinals bring back five offensive line starters from last year who each started 4+ games.
Defensively, the story remains very similar. The loss of star defensive lineman Sheldon Rankins hurts but his absence will be quickly forgotten due to Louisville returning five of its top seven defensive linemen, five of the top seven linebackers, and six of its top seven defensive backs from last year’s defense which was the 23rd-best in the country. The Cardinals’ 2016 defense will be led by outside linebacker Devonte Fields, who had a team-leading 11 sacks in 2015, and the defensive-back trio of Josh Harvey-Clemons, Trumaine Washington, and Chucky Williams, who combined for 10 interceptions a season ago.
Last season, Louisville held a narrow 7-3 lead after one quarter in Tallahassee but proved completely unable to move the ball or stop FSU’s offense down the stretch of the game, losing 41-21. With the 2015 win, Florida State extended its all-time series lead to 14-2 over UL including a perfect 2-0 record since the Cardinals joined the ACC.
In opposing fashion from Florida State, Louisville has a relatively unchallenging schedule ahead of its matchup with the ‘Noles. While FSU has to take on Ole Miss in Orlando in week one, UL has only a home matchup against Charlotte and a trip to take on Syracuse in the Carrier Dome ahead of its week three showdown against Florida State inside Papa John’s Stadium.
SB Nation’s Bill Connelly released his Louisville preview last week and, although the entire piece is worth a read, here are some selected excerpts:
Upside, upside, upside. It's impossible not to use the word. He didn't finalize his starting role until the bowl game, he was part of plenty of iffy performances, his INT and fumble rates were a little bit high, and his sack rate was far too high. But he still threw for 1,840 yards, and before factoring in sacks, he still rushed for 1,143. If that's the unvarnished version ... goodness.
If Jackson ends up Louisville's primary quarterback all year (meaning, if he stays healthy and doesn't fall into a slump), he should pass 2,500 passing yards and 1,500 rushing yards. That's incredible in and of itself. The question is, how many glitches will we see? How many lapses of inefficiency will we see between the bursts?
Even as Jackson won the starting job, he completed just 45 percent of his passes in the final three games. His legs are amazing, but some of the opponents on the 2016 slate will slow his rushing a bit. His mastery of the Petrino passing system will be vital.
S&P+ says Louisville has at least a 64 percent chance of winning in each of its last seven games; that should allow for the Cardinals' win total to creep toward nine games and establish them as the ACC's third-best team (while in the same division as the two ahead of them).
If they want to make something more of 2015, however, it will happen early. UL hosts Florida State in Week 3, and S&P+ gives the Cardinals a nearly 50-50 chance of pulling off a big win. Winning at Clemson is less likely, but if you beat FSU and start 4-0 (which will require tricky road wins at Syracuse and Marshall, too), you'll be stealing a lot of headlines and opening up the possibility of a three-way ACC Atlantic tie.
I'm guessing that probably doesn't happen; I figure Jackson still has some lapses to work through, and they're more likely to happen early. But even with potential inconsistency, the upside should show itself enough to make the Cardinals one of the more dangerous teams in the country.
Trevon Young, one of Louisville’s best defenders will not return for the 2016 season after a bad injury in the bowl game. He’ll redshirt and try to come back in 2015.
Young had a breakout junior season in 2015, registering 8.5 sacks, 32 tackles and 10 tackles for loss. His 8.5 sacks were second on the team behind Devonte Fields, and seventh in the ACC.