August is here and that means college football season is starting soon. The first games of the 2017 season kick off Aug. 26. And as it quickly approaches, we have 25 days to preview each of the 25 teams in our updated Dr. Saturday 2017 preseason poll. Check here every day to find out who we think the 25 best teams in the country will be. Fair warning, however. We’re probably going to be wrong.
Previous entries: No. 15 Wisconsin, No. 16 Georgia, No. 17 Florida, No. 18 South Florida, No. 19 Kansas State, No. 20 Texas, No. 21 Miami, No. 22 Notre Dame, No. 23 Northwestern, No. 24 Washington State, No. 25 North Carolina
No. 14 LOUISVILLE
2016 record: 9-4
Returning starters: 5 offense, 7 defense
Biggest non-conference game: Nov. 25 at Kentucky
Biggest conference game: Oct. 21 at Florida State
Key returning player: QB Lamar Jackson
Key departed player: S Josh Harvey-Clemons
Three things to know about Louisville
• Lamar Jackson is back for an encore.
Jackson showed flashes of brilliance toward the end of 2015 and immediately established himself in 2016 as one of the most electric dual-threat quarterbacks we’ve ever seen en route to the Heisman Trophy. His numbers were just crazy. He put up a whopping 3,543 passing yards and 1,571 rushing yards while combining for 51 touchdowns.
That offense was just so darn fun to watch when it was clicking on all cylinders early in the year. Things got a bit uneven midway through the season, though. There were close calls against Duke and Virginia before it all collapsed with three straight losses to finish the year. Jackson really struggled during those losses. His completion percentage ended up at 56.2 percent when the year ended and he took too many sacks. Now a junior, his decision-making needs to improve.
Bobby Petrino has a track record of coaching up quarterbacks to play at a high level. And after Jackson almost exclusively took snaps from shotgun the last two years, Petrino worked him under center throughout the offseason.
“Lamar had a good spring. We did work him more underneath the center. We wanted to get him comfortable doing that. In fact, the first week of spring ball we stayed under the center. He can really drop and throw it from under there. The best thing about Lamar is it was never an issue of taking the snap, so he could always take the snap. It was just getting used to the footwork, getting to the right mesh point to help the running back out, and I think it’ll help us be a harder team to defend. I really believe that,” Petrino said.
They also focused on improving Jackson’s ability to work through his progressions and mechanics, too. Petrino explained it well at ACC Media Days:
“He worked hard on his progression reads. He took a lot of pride out on the practice field, understanding the coverages, what the safeties are doing, and going through his progression. He also worked real hard on his footwork, making sure he gets set, gets his back leg under his hip, and when he does that and stands tall, he’s a very, very accurate thrower. He’s a great deep ball thrower, and you know, it was fun to really go back this summer,” Petrino said.
“He made a lot of strides. He’s going to continue to get better, and the best thing about Lamar Jackson is his attitude and work ethic. He comes to practice every day with a smile on his face and goes 100 percent. That makes everybody around us a lot better.”
• With Jackson, Louisville is always going to be dangerous, but there are a lot of questions about his supporting cast on offense. Jackson’s top three targets from 2016 — tight end Cole Hikutini and receivers James Quick and Jamari Staples — have moved on. Top running back Brandon Radcliff’s eligibility expired as well.
So who will fill the void? At running back, Petrino pointed to Reggie Bonnafon, who has also played QB and receiver, along with Malik Williams and Jeremy Smith, both of whom are returning from injury. Smith, with 652 career yards and 11 touchdowns, is the more experienced of the two. Seth Dawkins and Jaylen Smith seem like the top options at receiver. Petrino likes his group of tight ends, too, but there are a lot of unproven commodities.
The Cardinals will also have three new starters on the offensive line, but that may not be the worst thing. The unit was a weakness in 2016. Rewatch that Houston game if you don’t remember, or just look at the number of sacks allowed: 47. It was bad and Jackson was running for his life. A quarterback with the escapability of Jackson masks a lot of deficiencies, but he struggled mightily down the stretch with defenders in his face constantly.
Petrino says the line has more depth in 2017. He also hired a familiar face in Mike Summers from Florida to clean things up.
“We have more depth on the offensive line. That will help us. There will be competition. It’ll make everybody better there. Obviously our offensive line takes a little bit of criticism from last season, but it’s really on the entire offense. Any time that we get sacked or have a negative play on offense, it’s everybody, so it wasn’t just the offensive line,” Petrino said.
“We did bring in a new offensive line coach in Mike Summers, who I’ve worked with. I think this is the fifth time that I’ve hired Mike, and he’s a really good coach, a really good teacher. He’ll help us a lot.”
There is also a change on the other side of the ball with Louisville and Mississippi State essentially swapping defensive coordinators. Todd Grantham left for Starkville, so Petrino scooped up Peter Sirmon. Sirmon’s defenses at MSU weren’t exactly juggernauts, but he has better personnel to work with at Louisville.
James Hearns and Trevon Young (back from a bad hip injury) makes up a ferocious pass-rushing combo and the secondary is experienced and very athletic despite losing corner Shaq Wiggins and safety Josh Harvey-Clemsons. The defensive line is a veteran group, too, but the underrated DeAngelo Brown (14 TFL) will be missed at nose tackle.
Grantham ran an aggressive, attacking style that got after the quarterback. It’ll be interesting to see if Sirmon reels that in a bit to avoid giving up big plays.
• If Louisville returns to the level it played early last year, can it sustain that success for the long haul of the season? The Cardinals blew out then-No. 2 Florida State and almost knocked off eventual national champion Clemson en route to its 9-1 start. UL was griping about being No. 5 in the College Football Playoff rankings headed into the Nov. 17 matchup at Houston, only to be trounced by the Cougars, 36-10.
That sent the Cardinals into a tailspin with all of their weaknesses coming to a head. A 41-38 home loss to rival Kentucky ended the regular season before a disappointing showing in the Citrus Bowl against LSU — another loss, 29-9.
In 2017, Louisville has the chance to be highly-ranked once again if it gets through its early-season tests. Two of its toughest games come in the season’s first three weeks: at North Carolina (who we seem to be higher on than most) and vs. Clemson. Win those games and you’re off and running with a real chance to compete with for the Atlantic.
Other than the October 21 trip to Tallahassee (and maybe the Thursday night trip to NC State), the Cardinals will probably favored in every other game they play in the regular season. In 2016, that late-season trip to Houston always loomed large. In 2017, UL’s season closes like this: at Wake Forest, vs. Virginia, vs. Syracuse, at Kentucky.
Those games, coupled with a joke of a non-conference slate (Purdue, Kent State, Murray State), marks a pretty clear path toward 10 wins.
For more Louisville news, visit CardinalSports.com.
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