The Louisville Cardinals check in at No. 23 in Athlon's college football 2012 top 25 countdown. Here's a look at our predictions for the most valuable players, games to watch, breakout candidates and other key categories for 2012.
Offensive MVP: Teddy Bridgewater, QB
Bridgewater was one of the top recruits in Louisville’s 2011 recruiting class and he certainly didn’t disappoint last season, taking home Big East Rookie of the Year honors. An injury to Will Stein allowed Bridgewater to take over the No. 1 spot on the depth chart and he finished with a Louisville freshman record of 2,129 passing yards. Although the Cardinals started 0-3 in his first three starts, they rebounded to finish with a share of the Big East title. Bridgewater tossed 14 touchdown passes, including three in the regular season finale against South Florida. As expected in his first year in college, Bridgewater made a few mistakes (12 interceptions), but completed an impressive 64.5 percent of his throws. With an offseason to work as the starter, Bridgewater should improve his numbers and finish with first-team All-Big East honors in 2012.
Trap Game: Connecticut (Nov. 24)
Louisville’s schedule sets up favorably for a run at 10 victories in 2012. But there’s a date against Connecticut on Nov. 24 that could be an unexpected stumbling block. The Cardinals have won two in a row over the Huskies, including a 34-20 game last year. However, the matchup with Connecticut comes just before the season finale at Rutgers (a Thursday night meeting on Nov. 29). The Louisville-Rutgers matchup could decide the Big East title, so there’s got to be some concern the date with the Huskies could be overlooked.
Upset Alert: at FIU (Sept. 22)
Louisville fans certainly don’t need any reminder about how dangerous FIU can be. The Golden Panthers upset the Cardinals 24-17 last season and return most of their core from that team. FIU will miss receiver T.Y. Hilton, but the defense returns 10 starters from a unit that allowed 19.5 points per game last year. With Louisville breaking in a new quarterback last year, the Golden Panthers caught the Cardinals at a good time in Week 2. Louisville certainly won’t overlook FIU in 2012, but this is still a dangerous team capable of pulling another upset.
Defensive MVP: Hakeem Smith, S
Smith has been a consistent enforcer in the secondary over the last two seasons. He started 12 games as a redshirt freshman in 2010 and finished with 88 stops and six tackles for a loss. Smith started all 13 games last year and recorded 84 tackles and forced three fumbles. Charlie Strong and defensive coordinator Vance Bedford would like to see Smith increase his interceptions, but he remains one of the top defensive backs in the Big East and a key leader for a secondary that looks to improve after allowing 227.4 yards a game last year.
Breakout Player: DeVante Parker, WR
Parker was one of three freshmen to see significant playing time in the receiving corps last year. Although he caught only 18 passes, Parker was the top big-play threat for quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. He took six of his 18 receptions for scores and averaged 16.2 yards per catch. Parker’s best performance came against FIU, recording four receptions for 52 yards and one touchdown. The sophomore may not lead the team in catches, but he should be the team’s top big-play threat and one of the Big East’s breakout receivers.
Unsung Hero: Mario Benavides, C
Benavides was supposed to be one of the Big East’s top offensive linemen last year, but injuries derailed his season before it got started. He missed the first three games of the season, but started the final 10 contests. Benavides’ return was crucial for Louisville’s offense, especially with a young quarterback under center. Assuming the senior can stay healthy in 2012, he should be the Big East’s top center and his presence in the lineup will be an overall boost to Louisville’s offensive line.
Biggest Game: at Rutgers (Nov. 29)
The Big East tends to schedule its best matchups for the end of the year and 2012 is no different. The Cardinals and Scarlet Knights will be picked by many to be the top two teams in the conference and this matchup could decide the Big East champion. Louisville has won the last two games against Rutgers, including a 40-13 rout in New Jersey in 2010. With South Florida visiting Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium this year, a road date against Rutgers should be Louisville’s most important contest of 2012.
Revenge Game: Cincinnati (Oct. 26)
Considering Louisville lost six games last season, there’s plenty of opportunities for revenge. However, circle Oct. 26 against Cincinnati. After dominating the series from 1998-2007, the Cardinals have lost their last four games against the Bearcats. Louisville led 16-7 at halftime last year, but watched Cincinnati score 18 unanswered to win 25-16. With the Bearcats losing quarterback Zach Collaros and running back Isaiah Pead, the momentum in this series should shift to Louisville this year.
Freshman to Watch: Nick Dawson, LB
The Cardinals must replace standout middle linebacker Dexter Heyman, but Preston and Daniel Brown are two building blocks for coach Charlie Strong. Despite the return of those two players, Louisville is still in need of linebackers to play in 2012. Dawson ranked as the No. 21 linebacker in the 2012 recruiting class and the No. 156 overall prospect. At 6-foot-3 and 228 pounds, he already has the physical frame to make an instant impact. Dawson may not start but expect him to see plenty of snaps in 2012.
Newcomer to Watch: John Wallace, K
Chris Philpott has finished his eligibility at Louisville, which leaves the team without a proven kicker in 2012. Wallace ranked as a two-star prospect in the 2011 recruiting class and connected on 11 of 14 attempts in his final year in high school. He connected on a 52-yard attempt in the spring game, but missed from 47. The Cardinals had eight games decided by seven points or less last year, so Wallace’s play will be important for Louisville’s Big East title hopes.
Position Battle: Running Back
One of the top priorities for offensive coordinator Shawn Watson is to improve a rushing attack that ranked 93rd nationally last season. Louisville averaged only 121.5 yards a game on the ground, which was a decrease from 175 yards a game in 2010. Victor Anderson has finished his eligibility, leaving Dominique Brown and Jeremy Wright as the top two backs in 2012. Brown is a converted quarterback, but finished second on the team with 533 yards last year. Wright recorded 334 yards on 73 attempts last season, but should be in for a bigger role in 2012. If Wright and Brown are unable to jumpstart the rushing attack, Senorise Perry and Corvin Lamb could get a shot to figure more into the mix.
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