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Is Louisville the Big East's Surprise Team for 2011?


By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)

Defining what is a surprise team is no easy task. Over the next couple of weeks, Athlon will take a look at a team from each of the BCS leagues that could be a surprise contender in their conference. Each of the candidates to surprise will be ranked fifth or worse in Athlon’s 2011 predictions.

Is Louisville the surprise team in the Big East? Here are five reasons to like and five to doubt the Cardinals in 2011.

Reasons to like the Cardinals to surprise:

1. Louisville hit a home run when it hired Charlie Strong. The former Florida defensive coordinator had to wait a while for his first head coaching gig, but landing at Louisville seems to be a good fit. Strong led the Cardinals to their first winning record since 2006 last year. The Big East will have three new coaches in 2011 and four others (including Strong) with one year of experience at their school. Although Strong has only been at Louisville for one year, he could be the best coach in the conference.

2. Quarterback play was a question mark going into last season, but that didn’t derail Louisville from its first bowl since 2006. Different year, same story. Adam Froman and Justin Burke have finished their eligibility, leaving junior Will Stein and highly-touted true freshman Teddy Bridgewater as the top two quarterbacks. Stein made two starts in 2009 and came off the bench against Rutgers last season and completed 9 of 14 passes for 72 yards. Bridgewater ranked as the No. 6 quarterback and the No. 96 overall prospect by Athlon Sports. Expect both quarterbacks to play, but if last year was any indication, coordinator Mike Sanford will find enough production from the quarterback position.

3. Despite losing Bilal Powell, Louisville should remain one of the top rushing teams in the Big East. Senior Victor Anderson rushed for 1,047 yards and eight scores as a freshman in 2008 and has 759 yards over the last two years. Jeremy Wright had a solid debut last year, rushing for 327 yards and four scores. Although neither is likely to match Powell’s 229 carries, the combination of Anderson/Wright should be just as effective.

4. Although this has been mentioned many times, it’s worth repeating again – the Big East is one of the most difficult conferences to predict. West Virginia looks like the team to beat, but there’s no guarantee the Mountaineers will have a smooth transition to new coach Dana Holgorsen. South Florida, Pittsburgh and Syracuse are just behind the Mountaineers, but each has question marks. Louisville has been picked near the bottom of the Big East, but considering the overall uncertainty, the Cardinals have just as good of a shot as anyone as finishing near the top.

5. Since Charlie Strong accepted the job, the Cardinals have ranked near the top in the Big East in recruiting. Louisville ranked third in 2010 and second behind Rutgers last season. The Cardinals also finished No. 34 in Athlon’s 2011 overall team recruiting ranks. Charlie Strong has brought in a solid foundation for the future.

Reasons to doubt the Cardinals will surprise:

1. A big reason why Louisville was able to jump from 4-8 to 7-6 last year was the contributions of 25 seniors. Only 16 seniors will suit up for the Cardinals in 2011, with 70 of the 101 players having at least three years of eligibility remaining. With the departure of a handful of seniors, the roster will be young this season. In order for the Cardinals to contend, they may need a year to allow some of their young talent to develop.

2. Could losing Bilal Powell be a bigger blow than most expect? Powell was a first-team All-Big East selection last year and ranked second in the conference in total rushing yards. Victor Anderson and Jeremy Wright have combined to average over five yards a carry in their career, but neither offers Powell’s power/speed combination. Anderson has battled injuries in his career, but should be healthy entering fall practice. Although both backs can be explosive, an injury could derail this promising one-two punch.

3. Will Stein’s limited body of work isn’t terrible, but there’s a lot of uncertainty about how he will hold up for a full year. Stein checks in at 5-foot-10, but that’s not really a big deal when you consider the success of other smaller quarterbacks in recent years – Chase Daniel, Russell Wilson and Todd Reesing, for example. If Stein struggles, Teddy Bridgewater is the alternative. Although Bridgewater is one of the top incoming recruits for Louisville, he has no collegiate experience. Stein doesn’t have to be Geno Smith, but a bad start would likely force the coaching staff to let Bridgewater grow into the position the rest of the year.

4. The Cardinals finished second in the Big East in pass defense last year, but the secondary is a question mark coming into fall practice. Safety Hakeem Smith had a standout freshman year, leading the team with 88 tackles, including six tackles for a loss. Junior Shenard Holton returns at free safety, which gives Louisville something to build around. Although Louisville should be fine at safety, cornerback is a real issue. Darius Ashley has been suspended indefinitely, after his second DUI arrest in seven months. His status for 2011 is uncertain. Even with Ashley in the lineup, the Cardinals had big concerns at corner, with the departure of Johnny Patrick (first-team All-Big East) and Bobby Burns. Seniors Anthony Conner and Preston Pace need to step up, along with sophomore Titus Teague. Considering the question marks, it will be a major surprise if the Cardinals finish among the leaders in the Big East in pass defense.

5. The schedule isn’t overwhelmingly difficult, but there are reasons to be worried. Louisville should have no trouble with its opener against Murray State, but has to be careful not to overlook FIU in Week 2. The Cardinals will also need to beat Kentucky –  something they haven’t done since 2006 – if they want to make a bowl. A road date at North Carolina is also another difficult non-conference matchup. Louisville gets an unbalanced schedule in Big East play, with four road contests and three home games. The good news for the Cardinals is three potential swing games are at home – Rutgers, Syracuse and Pittsburgh. With two non-conference games and four Big East contests on the road, Louisville will have some work to do if it wants to get bowl eligible in 2011.

Other Big East Content:

Ranking the Top 25 Players in the Big East for 2011
2011 Louisville Preview
Athlon's 2011 Big East Predictions

Athlon's 2011 All-Big East Team

A Strong Start at Louisville