Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - 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
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
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
"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
Even with proven commodities all over the field there will still be detractors
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.
The Sports Network