Big East preview: Cardinals at the crossroads
By Dennis Dodd
CBS SportsLine.com Senior Writer
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This is the most important season in Louisville football history. That's not us talking, that's the anticipation in the program itself. Fans, coaches and players can sense something special.
3. West Virginia
7. South Florida
Off. player of year:
Michael Bush, Louisville
Def. player of year:
Elvis Dumervil, Louisville
Coach of the year:
Greg Schiano, Rutgers
This is Year 1 of the play in the Big East. With the loss of Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College, Louisville automatically becomes the conference's best program. The Cards are favored this year and, if Bobby Petrino stops his wanderlust, in the future.
Petrino, 20-5 at the school going into this third season, kept alive the momentum established by Howard Schnellenberger and John L. Smith. Last year the Cardinals led the nation in total offense, scoring offense and victory margin.
Oddly, it was a defensive play that kept Louisville from an undefeated season. Kerry Rhodes' dropped interception at Miami was the difference in pulling off one of the biggest upsets in school history.
That's kind of the rub for Louisville. It went 11-1 last season in Conference USA, played two ranked teams and beat one of them (Boise State in the Liberty Bowl).
RB Michael Bush had 11 receptions and 7 touchdowns as a sophomore in 2004. (Getty Images)
Were the Cardinals taking advantage of a weak C-USA field or building a legitimate powerhouse? We'll find out with a step up in competition.
Athletic director Tom Jurich has worked for years to get his program to this point. There's an $8 million practice facility going up. The talent is some of the best in the country. The fan interest, facilities and commitment qualify it as the 13th SEC school.
With all that going for it, Louisville has the profile of this year's Auburn. In other words, it could win all its games and be left out of the BCS title game. Hey, if it happened to the Tigers, it could easily happen to Louisville.
The Cardinals start out No. 14 in the coaches poll, their highest preseason ranking (Auburn started 18th last year in the coaches). They don't play a team ranked in the final 2004 AP poll until Nov. 3 (Pittsburgh) and have the Big East's easiest schedule strength according to CBS SportsLine.com.
Big East Pac-10
Big Ten SEC
Big 12 Sun Belt
That's looking way too far into the future. Louisville will be glad to take on that problem when and if it comes.
Predicted order of finish:
1. Louisville: Size and speed. No school in the country has as much of each. Tailback Michael Bush is a 6-foot-3, 250-pound burner who played quarterback in high school. Joshua Tinch, 6-3, 233, is ready to take over for departed J.R. Russell as the go-to receiver. The offensive line averages 319.6 pounds
The defense finished a surprising 15th nationally. How about a 17-year-old defensive end with two years experience (Amobi Okoye)? How about a juco transfer linebacker who was one of the top players in the country coming out of high school (Nate Harris)? The only question defensively is in the secondary, where three starters have to be blended in.
2. Pittsburgh: Steel Town is jazzed about the return of homeboy Dave Wannstedt as coach. After a BCS bowl, the Panthers will be re-made a little bit on offense, as a power running team. That won't have much of an impact on quarterback Tyler Palko. It will actually help him in play-action mode.
Unfortunately, Louisville is the new tormentor, replacing Miami. Pittsburgh doesn't have the defense to measure up to the Cardinals' powerful offense when the teams meet Nov. 3 at Louisville.
3. West Virginia: Quite a dropoff after the top two teams. The Mountaineers return only nine starters, but under Rich Rodriguez, they are always a headache.
Rodriguez must replace his star quarterback (Rasheed Marshall), tailback (Kay-Jay Harris) and defensive back (Pacman Jones). There's enough talent around to do it, although not at the same level. Look for freshman tailback Jason Gwaltney to start what could be a superstar career.
4. Syracuse: There is a lot of excitement about new coach Greg Robinson, but the Orange are still a notch below what they used to be.
Because of Robinson, Syracuse will initially rebuild with defense and hope for talent on offense that approaches the level of Donovan McNabb.
5. Rutgers: Key year for fifth-year coach Greg Schiano (12-34). He must get the Scarlet Knights to a bowl, any bowl, to save his job.
Rutgers started 4-2 last year and lost the last five. Schiano was once a golden-boy coordinator with his Miami pedigree. Not much has gone right in his four seasons. The Knights have won more than four games only once.
Seventeen starters and a (somewhat) easy schedule make six victories possible.
6. Connecticut: Randy Edsall could run for mayor in Storrs. UConn is one of only five programs to finish over .500 in their first three years I-A. The Huskies led the Big East in total offense and defense in its first year in the league.
A lot of that changes this year as Edsall tries to replace the heart of an 8-4 Music City Bowl team. Watch for tailback Terry Caulley who led freshmen in rushing in 2002 and was leading the nation in rushing in 2003 when he blew out his knee.
7. South Florida: Jim Leavitt is the fifth-fastest coach to reach 50 victories in I-A. Most of those were as an independent and in Conference USA.
Playing a Big East schedule will be a huge step up. The Bulls aren't there yet. Playing six road games is going to make a bowl game tough to get. But they'll challenge leaning on running back Andre Hall (6.5-yard average).
8. Cincinnati: In his first year, Mark Dantonio won with Rick Minter's players, including Gino Guidugli in 2003. To understand that sentence you have to know who (Dantonio, second-year coach), Minter (former coach) and Guidugli (former quarterback) are.
Cincinnati will be the C-USA program most affected by the move to the Big East. Only six starters are back from Dantonio's surprising 7-5 bowl team. Three of the first five games are at Penn State, Miami (Ohio) and Pittsburgh.
Dantonio is a defensive coach. That's the Bearcats' weakest area. Get a shovel, Mark.