The Cardinals were expected to be a competitive force in the Big East but stunned many when they ripped off nine straight wins to open the regular season and jump into the national rankings. In early November it looked like the Cardinals' armor had begun to lose its luster as Louisville was routed at Syracuse (45-26) and lost a head-scratcher in overtime (23-20) to Connecticut. However, Louisville then won in a thriller in the final week of the regular season at Rutgers (20-17) to collect the Big East title and punch its ticket to a BCS Bowl.
Any contingency of people outside of Louisville that gave the Cardinals a shot in the Sugar Bowl against SEC power Florida, was minuscule. The mighty SEC versus the marginal Big East didn't seem like a matchup that favored the men in red. However a 38-yard interception return for a touchdown just 15 seconds into the contest set the tone for the Cardinals' impressive 33-23 victory. The Cardinals won their second BCS Bowl game and first since the 2006 squad went 12-1 and earned a 24-13 win in the Orange Bowl over Wake Forest.
OFFENSE: It wasn't just Strong that rose to prominence in the national spotlight last season. His quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater, was considered one of the better signal callers in the Big East going into 2012. After the display he put on in 2012, Bridgewater is now on a short list of Heisman Trophy candidates and a likely top 10 pick in the NFL Draft.
What makes Bridgewater so lethal is his alarming accuracy and his ability to get the ball deep down field. Bridgewater completed 68.5 percent of his pass attempts last season, throwing for 3,718 yards and 27 touchdowns against just eight interceptions. His 8.9 yards per pass average was the fourth best mark in the nation. It would be tough to improve on such stellar numbers but a repeat performance would be just fine.
Just like the Cardinals themselves, Bridgewater won't be sneaking up on anyone this season, but Strong feels he will be able to handle the added pressure.
"I think that when you look back, he really didn't want this team and he didn't want to be the leader of his team, but just the way he's grown and developed, he has no choice now. And he's ready to welcome that challenge," Strong said.
Bridgewater has plenty of options to toss the ball to. Devante Parker (40 receptions, 744 yards, 10 TDs) should be a first-team all-conference selection come year's end with his explosive athletic ability. Parker averaged 18.6 yards per reception and at 6-foot-3 has the size to catch just about anything. Eli Rogers (46 receptions, 505 yards) is a dependable target, while Damian Copeland (50 receptions, 628 yards) led the team in receptions last season.
Two running backs that dealt with knee injuries last season will carry the load in terms of running the football. Senorise Perry split time with Jeremy Wright and put up 705 yards rushing, while scoring 11 touchdowns before going down to the injury. After successful surgery Perry will be expected to continue his strong production. Dominique Brown missed the entire 2012 season due to injury but provides the type of power back option that will compliment Perry.
The stable of backs will be further bolstered by the addition of Michael Dyer. Multiple sources reported in early August that the former Auburn running back would be transferring to Louisville. Dyer rushed for more than 1,000 yards and 15 total touchdowns in two seasons with the Tigers and was the MVP of the 2011 BCS National Championship Game.
However, Dyer was suspended indefinitely at the end of the 2011-12 campaign and then transferred to Arkansas State but was then dismissed before playing a snap due to an incident with police. It remains to be seen whether Dyer will become the starter or split carries with Perry and Brown.
Two important starters on the offensive line are gone but there are still three starters back. Jake Smith is the most prominent figure in the trenches and the guard could see some time at center.
DEFENSE: Though Louisville was not exactly a spectacular defensive squad last season, the Cardinals found their identity against Florida and will look to build off that effort this year. What makes that goal well within reach is the fact that the bulk of last year's unit will be back on the field. Nine starters return from last season's team.
The secondary has the most talent and the largest chance for star potential. Safeties Hakeem Smith and Calvin Pryor are both punishing tacklers who are not afraid to hit hard. Pryor finished with 100 tackles last season and forced a team-high five fumbles. Smith had 73 takedowns and seven passes defended. Terrell Floyd led the team with three interceptions at the cornerback spot.
Preston Brown (109 tackles) was the leading tackler for Louisville last season and he will be back once again at middle linebacker. George Durant (37 tackles, 4.5 TFL) is a senior linebacker with starting experience, while James Burgess is a sophomore that has a lot of upside.
Four different defensive linemen will be back after being full-time starters last year. Brandon Dunn, Roy Philon and Jamaine Brooks are a trio of defensive tackles that form a nice rotation in the middle and really stuff the run well. Defensive end Marcus Smith had four sacks last year and should be even better this season.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Adrian Bushell and Wright combined to return 23 of 35 punt returns last season but with each gone someone else will need to step up. Though Perry returned seven punts, Strong will likely not use him to avoid any unnecessary injury risk. Corvin Lamb averaged 18 yards per punt return and should get first shot in both punt and kick returns. Freshman James Quick could also be a factor.
As a freshman John Wallace knocked in 16-of-21 field goal attempts and 38- of-42 PAT. He will be back. Meanwhile Ryan Johnson needs to improve on a weak punting average (39.4).
OUTLOOK: Strong has built something impressive at Louisville and after flying to such lofty heights last season the thought around campus is another BCS Bowl berth is the only way this season would be seen as a success. That's just how Strong wants it.
"The theme for us is going to be either we're growing or we're dying, Strong said. "If we're growing, we're trying to get better each and every day and we're trying to improve the program. If we're dying, we'll be at the program that's just going to want to maintain."
Thanks to a weak schedule the Cardinals may even have a shot at a 12-0 season and a possible invite to the BCS National Championship. In its first four games, Louisville's biggest test is on the road against in-state rival Kentucky. Then the American Athletic Conference schedule begins at Temple. From there some of the more challenging games in league play are largely at home (Rutgers, UCF and Houston). However, the Cardinals do go on the road against a UConn team that upset them a year ago before finishing the season at Cincinnati, the team considered by many to be the Cardinals' biggest obstacle to another league title.
Though Louisville won't be in the AAC for very long, this season it should dominate the league. Bridgewater is one of a handful of players in the country that has real Heisman potential. The defense should be better as well with so much returning experience. It's a long season but if things break Louisville's way, the Cardinals could be painting Pasadena red come January.