The 2014 season will be a year of transition for the Lousiville Cardinals as Charlie Strong jumped ship to join the Texas Longhorns. The offseason has been marked with questionable decisions from the administration and coaching staff. The biggest question mark was the decision to bring back the embattled Bobby Petrino to replace Strong.
Petrino is in the top five of most controversial figures in college athletics, and a case could be made for the No. 1 spot. He’s a tremendous offensive mind who knows how to call a game, develop quarterbacks and put points on the board. On the field, he’s one of the best in the business.
His off-the-field antics are what bring serious questions to the table. Petrino has lied and earned a reputation as having his eye on the next big thing. Petrino’s moral failings have been well-documented, and will no doubt be part of the discussion this season.
Thus, the Cardinals enter 2014 with many questions and potential distractions. They will need to overcome them if they wish to make some noise during their first season in the ACC.
Petrino and the Cardinals must first find a replacement for superstar quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. He has been the story over the last several seasons and his shoes won’t be easy to fill. Despite comments meant to downplay the situation, the job will likely fall to highly-regarded sophomore Will Gardner.
He played sparingly behind Bridgewater last season, but that’s more experience than any other quarterback on the roster. Gardner should win the job, and while he will undoubtedly make mistakes that a young quarterback is prone to make, he should play well enough to keep the Cardinals competitive. Plus, he has plenty of weapons to use.
Returning are leading rusher Dominique Brown and leading receiver DeVante Parker. Both played well last season, gaining more than 800 yards each and Parker crossed into double-digit touchdowns. Having those two will help Gardner as he develops.
There’s also depth at the skill positions, with a guy like former Auburn Tigers RB Michael Dyer being listed as fourth on the spring depth chart.
Add to these weapons an experienced offensive line, along with Petrino’s offensive prowess, and the Cardinals have the makings of a juggernaut on offense. That will depend largely upon Gardner’s progress in summer camp.
Another serious question this offseason was why Petrino chose to throw $5 million at former Georgia Bulldogs defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. He is a decent coach, but his units in Athens mostly underachieved and last season, his defense looked lost the entire year. While it’s not a terrible hire, it also makes zero sense to pay Grantham like he was Kirby Smart or John Chavis.
Grantham takes over a defense that finished second in FBS, allowing only 12.2 points per game. That won’t be an easy performance to repeat as leading tackler Preston Brown, sack leader Marcus Smith and star safety Calvin Pryor have all moved on to the NFL. That’s a lot of production to replace, but the good news is there is some experience returning.
The spring depth chart featured many guys who have been in the program a while, such as Sheldon Rankins, B.J. Dubose and Deiontrez Mount, who have played as reserves and waited for their turn. There are also returners like Lorenzo Mauldin, James Burgess and Charles Gaines, who were among the team leaders a year ago and will be leaders of the defense in 2014.
If the new starters can step up in place of the stars who have left, the Cardinals could be in for another strong year defensively.
The Cardinals’ schedule is tough, but not unmanageable by any stretch of the imagination. The toughest opponent on the schedule is the defending champion Florida State Seminoles, but the Cards get them at home. A couple of tough road games in Death Valley against the Clemson Tigers and in South Bend against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish loom as challenges.
There are eight likely wins for the Cardinals, so at worst, they’ll finish 8-4 in 2014. I believe they definitely drop games to the Seminoles and Irish, but the game against the Tigers and the opener against the Miami Hurricanes are both winnable.
The prediction here is they pull off one of those upsets, finishing the season 9-3 and either second or third in the Atlantic division. Considering all the changes and questions, this would be a huge success for Petrino and the Cardinals.