As another off season of College Football material kicks off, this year marks the third year I’ll throw my hat in the ring and look at a number of topics and categories. In the process I’ll look to do everything from predicting next year’s 25 best teams, identify the games of the year, narrow down the Heisman field, identify those replacing 2012′s stars and ultimately make predictions for each league, culminating in a national championship pick. They’ll be many things I’ll be ridiculed for. There will be a number of things that will surprise some people. Ultimately you’ll come away from the next 6 months of material as ready for the college football season as I can possibly make you. While I’ll be sure to miss on things I would like to remind the skeptics I did correctly predict the same number of bowl teams preseason as Phil Steele a year ago as well as top him in BCS Bowl participants predicted before the year. Nonetheless I’m not putting out any magazines soon so keep buying his for the top preseason coverage available.
The key in any top 25 poll is understanding the premise on which the poll is based because not all top 25 polls are built the same way. Some people choose to rank teams 1-25 based on where they think teams will be ranked at year’s end. If they think a team will lose 5 games they won’t rank them. While that may seem logical I’ve never been a proponent of that style of poll and it has never been, nor will ever be, how I choose to do my top 25 polls. My polls reflect the 25 teams entering 2013 who I think are the top 25 teams on a neutral field if the country played a round-robin. If a team is likely to max out at 7 wins that doesn’t give me the urge to rank a nine-win team over them if the nine-win team is from a much weaker league. With that covered, let us continue the top 25 for 2013 as the official kickoff of the off season coverage here at The Sports Headquarters.
*Returning Starters Figures from Phil Steele’s Blog
Teams already ranked:
#25. Fresno State Bulldogs
#24 Vanderbilt Commodores
#23 USC Trojans
#22 Miami Hurricanes
#21 Ole Miss Rebels
#20 Boise State Broncos
#19 Wisconsin Badgers
#18 Oklahoma Sooners
#17 Florida State Seminoles
#16 Northwestern Wildcats
#15 Oklahoma State Cowboys
Coming in at #14…
2012 Record: 11-2
Conference Finish: 1st in Big East
Bowl: Won Sugar Bowl 33-23 over Florida
2013 Returning Starters: 6 offense, 9 defense
A team who may be a trendy top 10 pick this season in a number of polls, the Sugar Bowl performance won’t overly influence my ranking for the Cardinals this season. Louisville for the majority of the 2012 season was a team worthy of 15-20 ranking and while it may not be music to the ears of the Cardinals fanbase, reality is there’s not much in the Big East next year that will show how good they are. Teddy Bridgewater was a well documented name in college football circles before he torched the Florida Gators but his 266 yards and 2 TD performance opened a lot more eyes in a game that frankly wasn’t as close as the final indicated. His return gives the Cardinals one of the nation’s top QBs in the country and while we could spend another 1000 words describing his importance to the team, time would be better suited showing what about this offense makes them stout coming into 2013 beyond the arm of their junior stud signal caller.
The biggest area in need of improvement is a rushing attack that finished 100th nationally a year ago. Senorise Perry is set to come back from an ACL injury he suffered in a loss at Syracuse and was the Cardinals’ best back before the injury. With over 700 yards and 11 scores in 10 games, the potential for a 1000 yard season is there if he becomes the workhorse for Charlie Strong. Jeremy Wright wound up representing the team’s leading runner last year but his absence from the university has put his status for next season in doubt. Behind Perry is Corvin Lamb and Brandon Radcliff, a three-star recruit from the 2011 class that redshirted a year ago. On the outside at wide receiver is where Louisville will bring back a loaded corps. Devante Parker returns as an all-conference performer a season ago along with Damian Copeland who led the team in catches a season ago complimenting him. In all five of the team’s top seven pass catchers are back and will give Bridgewater a ton to work with in 2013.
The offensive line returns just two starters, an alarming development for a team who gave up a ton of sacks last season. Things can begin to unravel for the Cardinals with their protection and those struggles were just one of many reasons many assumed the Florida defense would have its way with Louisville in the Sugar Bowl. The Cardinals were dominant in the red zone last season with a 93% scoring rate including 65% of red zone drives finishing in touchdowns. With numbers like that it’s not a surprise they won the Big East and will be a massive favorite to do so again.
The Cardinals weren’t a dominant defensive unit last season but were strong enough to finish in the top 25 nationally and as the rest of the narrative goes played some of its best football in the Sugar Bowl. The good news for Louisville is nearly everyone is back. Nine starters are back with experience at all three levels and if the secondary improves as one would hope with another offseason and spring drills it has the potential to be one of the five-ten best in the country. The entire front four is back from the weak link of the Louisville defense. The Cardinals generated very little pressure on the quarterback last season ranking very low nationally in the sack department. On top of that the red zone defense was poor giving up 28 TDs in 42 opponent drives inside the 20.
Preston Brown is back for his senior season after an all-conference 2012 season where he led the team with 109 tackles and will anchor a linebacker unit that had no other player record 60 tackles last season. Brown will be the voice of the middle of the defense and one thing the Cardinals certainly would like to improve on heading into 2013 from the back seven is third down defense. Louisville did not do a good job in 2012 of getting off the field and while the league may not make that an issue, if the Cardinals have bigger goals down the road that could be an important determinant. Keep in mind Louisville used three and outs to really put Florida behind the eight ball in the Sugar Bowl.
The secondary as mentioned before could be the dominant unit for this team. Calvin Pryor and Hakeem Smith give the team two all-conference performers at safety and in all three starters are back from the back four that ranked 16th nationally in defending the pass. Both safeties were among the team’s top tacklers as well. Adrian Bushell is the only corner with significant impact gone from last year’s team. Louisville was among the top pass defended teams in college football last year and yet didn’t pick off a lot of passes, a sign of tight coverage that doesn’t bank on errant throws to stop the opposition’s passing attack.
Perhaps one stat that is worrisome for Louisville coming off last year, this courtesy of Matt Smith at College Football News is no team had a higher recovery rate on fumbles than the Cardinals. While some of that can be accredited to their own play making, it’s a stat that requires some luck and perhaps they aren’t as fortunate in 2013.
What’s there to say that hasn’t been said by those who put out preseason rankings earlier than I do? Louisville’s 2013 schedule lacks much meat and it will be hard for me at the very least to judge this team until the bowl season. While it is possible Rutgers or Cincy could prove to be a very good team and make that assessment easier earlier in the year, the guess is Louisville will get top 10/top 15 love and we’ll need a bowl game to see if that is an accurate projection. The non-conference schedule provides basically nothing in the way of a challenge. Maybe at Kentucky provides a semi-challenge if Mark Stoops can provide an immediate impact but the guess here is that won’t happen. Thus the best place to look for a challenge comes in league play. Rutgers and new league member Central Florida pop up in mid-October and could give Louisville a run for its money. After that the season finale at Cincy would look like the one other area of concern. Nonetheless a loss to Uconn last season was never expected (with Teddy Bridgewater’s injury playing a big part) and usually some team every year that isn’t projected to do anything surprises so nothing is guaranteed. Nonetheless if Louisville is the quality of team most think they are, they should again win the Big East with probably 10-11 wins.
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