2012 College Football Team Previews

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For the Cardinals, the timing seems right.

In an already-weak Big East that saw its flagship football school (West Virginia) leave for the Big 12 after last season, it's Louisville that returns 17 starters and will likely be the preseason favorite.

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Perhaps that's why third-year coach Charlie Strong is doing a 180 of sorts from last year, when his instinct was to note the team's shortcomings. This time, he's trying to downplay high expectations, including those of one player who predicted the Cards would go unbeaten.

"A lot of times when people think you're rated so high, you're just going to roll the ball out to them," Strong told the Louisville Courier-Journal. "We're not good enough to just roll the ball out against anybody."

But Strong can't deny that Louisville will be able to match up with any offense it faces. It has nine starters back on defense, including All-Big East picks at cornerback (Adrian Bushell) and safety (Hakeem Smith).

Where the Cards have to improve is on offense. The pieces are there to do so with the conference's most experienced line, led by 34-game starter Mario Benavides at center and three other returning starters.

There's also sophomore quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who hit 64.5 percent of his passes last year after earning the starting role in mid-September. But will that experienced line offer him better protection than it did in 2011, when it coughed up 41 sacks?

"We'll all tell you we're not a finished product," offensive coordinator Shawn Watson said. "We have a lot of polish to put on our game. Consistency isn't quite there yet. We can't rely on talent alone."

HEAD COACH: Charlie Strong, third year at Louisville, 14-12 record at school and 14-13 overall as a head coach

MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: QB Teddy Bridgewater -- After throwing for 2,129 yards and 14 TDs as a freshman, Bridgewater appears to be on the fast track for stardom. A spring of hard work and devotion to the film room have sped his development to the point that the Cardinals should be able to open every page of the playbook this fall. Bridgewater can make all the throws and keep plays alive with his feet. If he can continue to improve his decision-making -- he tossed 12 interceptions last year, three in a bowl loss to N.C. State -- Bridgewater will make this offense more potent all by himself.

BREAKOUT STAR: WR Eli Rogers -- A high-school teammate of Bridgewater at Miami Northwestern, Rogers led Louisville in receptions last year with 41 despite not starting. Rogers showed his big-play potential with a 58-yard gain at Cincinnati, but also displayed the ability to make tough catches over the middle. With a year under his belt, Rogers should be able to make more plays and produce more than 11.1 yards a catch, his average of a season ago.

NEWCOMER TO WATCH: LB Keith Brown -- A four-star recruit out of Norland High School in Miami, Brown could find playing time immediately, even with a unit that returns nine starters. Rivals.com rated Brown, who notched 255 tackles in his final two seasons, as the nation's seventh-best inside linebacker prospect. Brown spurned offers from Florida, Florida State and Miami (Fla.) to join nine other Floridians in the Cards' recruiting class.

KEYS TO SUCCESS: The defense will be able to knock heads with anyone on the schedule with nine starters back, including all four on the line. Three veterans return in the secondary, which will be important vs. the pass-happy attacks of North Carolina, Florida International and Southern Miss in September. Bridgewater could be the Big East's best this year after hitting nearly 65 percent of his passes last season, while the receiving corps offers depth and game-breakers. What's more, there's an air of confidence about this team that hasn't been there since the Bobby Petrino era.

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AREAS OF CONCERN: Can the conference's most experienced offensive line (four returning starters) play like it and not allow 41 sacks, as it did last year? Will the Cards find the running game they never really had in 2011, when they averaged only 3.4 yards per carry and 121.5 yards per game? Does someone step up to become the reliable kicking specialist -- and punter -- this team lacked a season ago? And with major expectations, can this team handle them or will they crater when expected to win and win big?

Notes

-- C Mario Benavides has been named to the Outland Trophy watch list. A three-year starter who has started 34 of a possible 38 games -- he missed the other four due to injury -- Benavides anchors the Big East's most experienced offensive line and is considered one of the nation's top O-linemen. He was also named to the Rimington Award watch list for the third straight year. That award honors the nation's best center.

-- S Hakeem Smith has been selected to the Thorpe Award and Nagurski Award watch lists. The junior, who has started 25 straight games, was a first-team All-Big East pick last year after tying for second on the team with 84 tackles and breaking up a team-high nine passes. Smith was the Big East Newcomer of the Year in 2010 after notching 88 tackles to lead the Cardinals.

-- TE Gerald Christian transferred from Florida and will have three years of eligibility remaining. The 6-foot-3, 260-pound Christian played in eight games as a freshman for Urban Meyer in 2010, earning most of his action in goal-line packages and on the field-goal unit.

-- WR Robert Clark also opted to transfer from Florida and has three years of eligibility left. Clark, who had Louisville on his final list of six schools coming out of Dwyer High in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., caught seven passes for 59 yards and a TD in 2010.

-- LT Alex Kupper (knee) was injured in the April spring game, but his worst fears were assuaged when it was diagnosed as an MCL sprain. Kupper has worked hard in rehabilitation and will be ready for preseason drills.

 
 
 
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