Playing in the same division with a pair of top-5 teams, Louisville has managed to fly a bit under the radar this offseason, but enters the year ranked as high as 19th in the human polls. Louisville is seen by many as a sleeper in the ACC ‘s Atlantic division after winning six of its last seven in 2015 and returning 18 starters.
Led by head coach Bobby Petrino, who is in the third season of his second stint with the Cardinals, Louisville will open the year on Thursday night against Charlotte at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. With head coach Brad Lambert at the helm, the 49ers are entering their second season as an FBS school.
Charlotte lost its final 10 games a season ago to finish 2-10 while Louisville capped an 8-5 season with a 27-21 Music City Bowl win over Texas A&M. The Cardinals dropped their season-opener last year against Auburn in the Georgia Dome. The 49ers’ 2015 campaign also opened in the Georgia Dome, a 23-20 win over Georgia State.
Charlotte at Louisville
Kickoff: Thursday, Sept. 1 at 7 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN3
Spread: Louisville -40
Three Things to Watch
1. Quarterback Play
His athletic ability was noticeable from the start, but down the stretch of last season, Lamar Jackson matured as a passer. Over his final seven starts as a freshman in 2015, Jackson accounted for 15 total touchdowns and just four interceptions. Jackson could stand to improve his completion percentage (54.7) and yards per attempt (7.45), but should be able to do so with 15 of the 16 Louisville receivers who caught a pass last season returning.
Charlotte quarterback Kevin Olsen was expected to make his FBS debut against Louisville two years to Thursday’s date when he was at Miami, but a DUI ultimately led to his dismissal. Once a four-star prospect out of high school in New Jersey, Olsen finds himself as part of a young FBS program. Olsen made five starts at Riverside City (Calif.) College last season, and at 6-foot-3 and nearly 200 pounds with a big arm, maybe he can bring some hope to a program that won just two games a season ago.
2. Kalif Phillips vs. the Louisville Front Seven
Charlotte had few bright spots during the 2015 season, but now senior running back Kalif Phillips was among them. Phillips rushed for 961 yards and five touchdowns last season – both team highs – but will be facing one of the nation’s best defensive fronts.
As talented as Florida State and Clemson are, Louisville may have the best corps of linebackers in the ACC. Seniors Keith Kelsey and Devonte Fields are all-conference-caliber performers while nose tackle DeAngelo Brown is virtually unblockable. If Charlotte has any hopes of keeping this one close for more than a half, it will need to move the chains and the clock and that means using its 205-pound back.
3. James Quick
Louisville’s leading returning receiver, has a chance to assert himself as one of the better pass catchers in the ACC. At 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds, Quick has long been established as a deep threat, averaging 16 yards per catch a season ago and leading the team with five touchdown grabs.
Where Quick can improve is becoming more consistent. Last season, he finished with 130 yards receiving and three touchdowns against one of the nation’s best defenses in Florida State while being held without a catch against the likes of Virginia. He’ll be facing a Charlotte defense that ranked just 88th nationally in yards allowed per game a season ago and just 110th in points.
Thursday’s contest in Louisville will bring excitement that football is back for the two teams, but don’t expect too much drama in this one. Louisville has an overwhelming edge in speed and talent while Charlotte is still settling in as a FBS program. Bringing in Olsen and bringing back Phillips should give Charlotte some hope that things can improve from 2-10, but don’t expect the 49ers to contend for a Conference USA title or for a victory against the Cardinals.