Ten games into last season, the Louisville Cardinals were still in the conversation for the College Football Playoff with a 9-1 record and the only blemish on their record was a close 42-26 loss to Clemson. Then, everything fell apart as the Cards were blown out by Houston. And then came a heartbreaking (to Louisville fans) 41-38 loss to Kentucky and a blowout loss to LSU in the Citrus Bowl.
The Cardinals will solidly be a Top 25 team this year and maybe even a top ten team, but that may not be enough for Cardinal fans. With Lamar Jackson in his last season as a Cardinal, the expectations are high for this to be the year the Cards crack the CFP.
Waiting at the end of the schedule yet again is the uber-rival in the Kentucky Wildcats and this time this game is in Lexington. There is nothing more that the Wildcats would rather do is to play spoiler for the Cardinals season.
The Cardinals return 11 starters, so there are some questions with this team. However, having Lamar Jackson is going to keep the Cardinals in all of the games and the Cards have a legit shot to win most, if not all of their games.
Jackson remains one of the most dynamic players in the NCAA, and he could be a repeat Heisman winner. Jackson accounted for 51 touchdowns last year with 21 on the ground. He also cracked over 5000 yards of total offense (3,543 passing, 1,571 rushing).
Superman, however, will always have flaws. Jackson completed just 56.2% of his passes and was sacked 46 times. He tossed three interceptions against Kentucky (and that fumble) and completed just 37% of his passes against LSU. Regardless, any plan to stop UL will center around Jackson.
Jackson will lead the team in rushing yet again, but Brandon Ratliff and his 903 yards rushing are gone. Jeremy Smith will see an increased workload, and he is coming off a solid season. He had 6.7 yards a carry and had eight rushing TDs. Smith is also a solid receiver out of the backfield with 18 catches for 227 yards. Freshman Colin Wilson has a good chance to get a lot of carries as well. Also look for Reggie Bonnafon to be featured here also.
Jackson also lost his top three targets last year in James Quick, Jamari Staples and Cole Hikutini, but there is still plenty of talent remaining. Jaylen Smith averaged 22.2 yards per catch and six touchdowns. He had 599 yards last year. Traveon Samuel is expected to emerge as a capable threat along with Devante Peete.Also, expect Bonnafon to get his number called more, and Seth Dawkins had a solid spring.
This will be a very solid offense by the time the Cardinals roll into Kroger Field, and there will be no worry as to who the Cardinal playmakers will be. However, the line must be much improved this season. Petrino has hired Mike Summers to renovate the line, and it has the potential to be solid by the end of the year.
The biggest loss for the Cardinals on defense was defensive coordinator Todd Grantham who went to Mississippi State. He was replaced in what was effectively a trade as MSU defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon made the trek to Louisville.
The defensive line has been an NFL feeding ground for the last few years, but Drew Bailey returns to anchor the line. Even though he is listed as a linebacker, James Hearns will line up at the end. Trevon Young is back and healthy from injury and will help give the Cards a solid line. The Cards still need to replace DeAngelo Brown but DeAsian Richardson and Chris Williams return.
Stacy Young returns to anchor the linebacking corps, and he provides excellent run support. Henry Famurewa has recovered from a gunshot injury that kept him out of the LSU game. Isaac Stewart and Jonathan Greenard were solid last year in limited roles and are poised to step up this year.
Part of the reason for the Cardinal's collapse last year was the lack of a consistent secondary as players were shuffled in and out and they lacked chemistry. Even with Shaq Wiggins and Josh Harvey-Clemons gone, this stands to be a solid unit. Louisville has a solid corp returning which includes Trumaine Washington, Jaire Alexander, and Chuck Atkins. If the front seven stays healthy, the defensive backs will be more than enough to suffice.
Like last year, both Kentucky and Louisville should be bowl eligible at this point, although there will be tremendous pressure for both teams to improve their bowl situation from the previous year. There will be a lot of pressure on the Louisville line to be able to protect Jackson. He was forced to tuck and run too many times last year out of desperation and Kentucky will have to make Jackson beat him with his arm.
Louisville definitely has the potential to be a top ten team or higher, but there are more questions with this team. Kentucky, even with their recent injuries, should still be a much better team. And this game is in Lexington.
Because of that, I'm calling it Kentucky 28-24.