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#18 Louisville Cardinals





HEAD COACH: Bobby Petrino, 58-18 (6 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Lonnie Galloway, Chris Klenikas | DEF. COORDINATOR: Todd Grantham

The ACC already features two of the nation’s best teams in Florida State and Clemson, but the Atlantic Division will get a little deeper with Louisville’s emergence in 2016. The Cardinals finished 2015 by winning six out of their last seven games and return 16 starters, including dynamic quarterback Lamar Jackson. The sophomore is surrounded by a solid supporting cast but needs better play from the offensive line. The defense – anchored by linebackers Devonte Fields and Keith Kelsey – should rank among the best in the ACC. The Cardinals also have a favorable schedule. Bobby Petrino’s team could be favored in nine games and hosts Florida State on Sept. 17. 

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Previewing Louisville’s Offense

A surprising trend of winning with defense during the second Bobby Petrino era should end. So should two seasons of revolving quarterbacks. Lamar Jackson showed Kentucky and Texas A&M his game-breaking skills to close last season. He improved his accuracy and decision-making during the spring. Jackson led the Cards in passing and rushing last season and elevated himself to a fringe Heisman candidate with 227 yards passing, 226 rushing and four touchdowns (two rushing, two passing) during a Music City Bowl victory.

Petrino is comfortable with Jackson’s running skills but would be more comfortable if he took fewer hits. The top three running backs — Brandon Radcliff, Jeremy Smith and L.J. Scott — return, along with every important receiver and tight end. Jamari Staples averaged better than 17 yards per catch last season and emerged as the top deep threat. James Quick looked comfortable after moving into the slot.

All eyes remain on the offensive line, which too often struggled with run or pass-blocking last season. One reason was inexperience. The Cards relied on two true freshmen as well as a junior college transfer. Sophomores Geron Christian and Kenny Thomas, both 6'6" and 320 pounds, are determined to eliminate their first-year mistakes. Four starters return, and offensive line coach Chris Klenakis has been elevated to co-offensive coordinator.

Previewing Louisville’s Defense 

, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

The four best recruits that Louisville secured were the four players on Todd Grantham’s defense who considered entering the 2016 NFL Draft but chose to return for a final college season.

The group includes three of the unit’s top four tacklers — linebackers Keith Kelsey and Devonte Fields as well as free safety Josh Harvey-Clemons. Tackle DeAngelo Brown should replace NFL Draft pick Sheldon Rankins as the primary run stuffer. They’re all full-sized hitters with considerable experience.

This remains a unit that feasts on turnovers, snatching 17 interceptions and grabbing nine fumbles. The most dynamic playmaker in the group is Fields. He needed nearly half the season to return to the form that made him the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year at TCU in 2012, delivering all but 2.5 of his 11.0 sacks in the final four games.

Previewing Louisville’s Specialists

John Wallace, the most prolific kicker in school history, has departed. So has Josh Appleby, a dependable punter. Mason King, a homegrown redshirt freshman, showed a powerful leg as a punter at St. Xavier High School. Four placekickers who played high school football in Kentucky will continue their fight to replace Wallace into fall camp. Jaire Alexander showed solid hands and the ability to change directions returning punts. Traveon Samuel, just 5'7", can hide behind blockers and find creases returning kickoffs.

Final Analysis 

This is the season Louisville expects to score and win the way the Cardinals scored and won during Petrino’s first four-year run at the program. The difference is those teams played in Conference USA and the Big East while this team competes in the Atlantic Division of the ACC and faces Clemson (away) and Florida State (home) during its first five games. There is also a daunting November trip to Houston, which won at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium in 2015. After Jackson emerged as a formidable quarterback during the final two games in 2015, and with the four veteran playmakers as well as Grantham returning on defense, this is a team that should flirt with 10 wins in 2016. There are proven veterans at nearly every position. If the offensive line makes the expected jump to upgrade the running game, Louisville could surprise either Clemson or Florida State.


#21 North Carolina Tar Heels





HEAD COACH: Larry Fedora , 32-20 (4 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Chris Kapilovic | DEF. COORDINATOR: Gene Chizik

The Tar Heels are coming off a breakthrough year in Larry Fedora’s fourth season in Chapel Hill. North Carolina won 11 games, claimed the Coastal Division title and finished No. 15 in the final Associated Press poll. Both sides of the ball suffered some key losses, but the Tar Heels are reloaded and open 2016 as the favorite to win the Coastal Division once again. Quarterback Mitch Trubisky is expected to have a breakout season in his first year as the starter, while running back Elijah Hood should be one of the best in the nation at his position. Trubisky is also surrounded by a deep group of receivers and one of the ACC’s top offensive lines. The Tar Heels made strides on defense last season, but there’s still a ways to go in coordinator Gene Chizik’s second year.

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Previewing North Carolina’s Offense

North Carolina led the nation in yards per play (7.28) last season and figures to be explosive again despite some new faces. Offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic takes over as offensive coordinator for Seth Littrell, who left to become head coach at North Texas, and fourth-year junior Mitch Trubisky replaces Marquise Williams as the starting quarterback. Even with the changes, the Tar Heels will run the same system at the same frenetic pace that head coach Larry Fedora prefers.

Trubisky is a capable runner and an accurate passer who completed 40-of-47 throws with no interceptions in 2015. He played in 21 games over the last two seasons, so he has experience heading into his first year as the starter. He also has plenty of help around him. Running backs Elijah Hood and T.J. Logan form a powerful 1-2 punch on the ground, and senior wide receivers Mack Hollins, Ryan Switzer and Bug Howard are dynamic threats in the passing game.

The Tar Heels also welcome back four returning starters and their top reserve on the offensive line. Left guard Caleb Peterson and right tackle Jon Heck enter their fourth year starting for a group that helped UNC rush for a school-record 5.96 yards per carry and allow an ACC-best 1.1 sacks per game.

Previewing North Carolina’s Defense

, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

UNC’s defense was among the most improved in the nation in 2015, but there’s more room for growth as Gene Chizik enters his second year as defensive coordinator. The Tar Heels allowed 61.9 yards per game fewer and 14.5 points per game fewer than the year before, but they ranked at or near the bottom of the ACC in sacks (1.6 per game), run defense (5.1 yards per carry) and third-down stops (ACC-worst 44.2 percent conversion rate).

UNC could use a big step forward from its defensive line after the Tar Heels allowed 424 rushing yards per game and 6.6 yards per carry in the final three games last season. End Dajaun Drennon and tackle Nazair Jones are the top performers, but they need some help. At least five underclassmen figure to see significant playing time up front. Behind them, linebacker is the position of biggest uncertainty on the roster. Team leaders Shakeel Rashad and Jeff Schoettmer departed after productive senior seasons, leaving Andre Smith and Cayson Collins to headline an athletic group that lacks experience.

The secondary is in solid shape with three key returners. Cornerbacks M.J. Stewart and Des Lawrence both finished in the top five in the ACC in passes defensed last season, and they should be one of the league’s top tandems again. Safety Donnie Miles is looking to improve in pass coverage after establishing himself as a sure tackler with a team-best 128 stops.

Previewing North Carolina’s Specialists 

Switzer is the headliner here, striking fear into opponents every time they punt the ball. He returned two punts for touchdowns last season and has seven such scores for his career, one short of the NCAA record. Kicker Nick Weiler looks to build on an outstanding season in which he made 20-of-23 field goals, including 16-of-17 attempts inside 40 yards.

Final Analysis 

This team will go as far as its new quarterback and unproven defense can take it. The Tar Heels need Trubisky to be as good in a starring role as he was in cameo appearances a year ago. They also need him to stay healthy, because his backups have combined for one career pass attempt. While it’s unfair to expect UNC to improve as much defensively as it did a year ago, more progress is needed in order for the Tar Heels to repeat as Coastal Division champions. The schedule is more difficult this season, leading to less margin for error.

The Debate

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