Can the Cardinals improve upon last year's 9-4 showing despite losing some key players?
There will be a lot of assumptions that the Louisville Cardinals football team will take a step back this season.
After all, a Heisman Trophy winner tends to see a bit of a drop-off if he returns the following year, and quarterback Lamar Jackson comes back as a junior with otherworldly expectations he can't possibly fulfill.
On top of that, the sour taste of the end of last season sticks in the mouths of some, where the Cards lost to Houston, Kentucky and LSU to close out what was otherwise a stellar year.
Then, of course, there are the personnel losses, where Jackson's top three receivers and leading rusher have moved on. The defense also lost key pieces in the front seven.
You also can point to the fact that Jackson's offensive line last year was never really good at all, and the only hope of improvement is that head coach Bobby Petrino changed coaches for that position unit.
So it's entirely possible the Cards drop a notch or two this season.
But, that schedule… have you looked at that schedule?
Louisville should be favored heavily in most of their games this season. Barring another late-season collapse, it's actually more realistic that – even with those aforementioned holes – the Cardinals finish with a better record than last year and make a run at the College Football Playoff again.
Athlon polled a few writers to get a better grip on what to expect from the Cardinals this season from a win/loss projection.
Louisville Football Game-by-Game Predictions for 2017
Adam Kurkjian (@AdamKurkjian)
The concerns for the Cards are real, but it would be a mistake to sort of swipe away any thought of another run at the College Football Playoff.
Lamar Jackson probably won't put up the type of numbers he did last year, but there is room for growth. Although he did combine for 51 touchdowns rushing and passing last season, he only completed 56.2 percent of his passes. Under the tutelage of head coach Bobby Petrino, who is about as good of a quarterback coach as it gets, that number should get closer to 60 percent, even with the loss of his top receivers.
The key stretches in this schedule come in the beginning and middle, for obvious reasons. The opening three-game stretch includes a trip to a rebuilding North Carolina and home game with reloading Clemson. The Tigers are clearly the team to worry about with a defensive line stacked with NFL talent, but that was a winnable game for the Cardinals last year in Death Valley and will be again this time at Papa John's Stadium.
The showdown at Doak Campbell Stadium against Florida State could make or break the season, but don't look past the Thursday night road game in Raleigh against an underrated NC State team.
It's not the toughest schedule, but we'll know exactly how good Louisville is by the end of October.
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
With Lamar Jackson back under center, Louisville has the firepower to win every game on its regular season schedule. But in order for the Cardinals to contend for a spot in the College Football Playoff, the offensive line has to take a step forward. This group surrendered 47 sacks last year and struggled against athletic and physical fronts like LSU and Houston in November. The progress of this group is critical, especially in a division that features three of the nation’s best defensive lines in Clemson, Florida State and NC State. Outside of the offensive line, the performance of Louisville’s defense is worth monitoring. Todd Grantham departed for Mississippi State, with Peter Sirmon taking over as the defensive play-caller. Sirmon’s defense at Mississippi State struggled last year, but he’s inheriting a solid foundation with cornerback Jaire Alexander and linebacker Stacy Thomas anchoring a unit that returns seven starters. I’m taking 9-3 for Louisville’s projection, but 10-2 wouldn’t be a surprise.
Bryan Fischer (@BryanDFischer)
The thud of an ending to last season contributed quite a bit but it's still surprising how little buzz there is about the Cardinals and returning Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson. As good as the quarterback was in 2016, expect him to be even better this year – especially as a passer – despite his rushing numbers coming a bit more down to Earth. There are defensive concerns in terms of personnel but the coordinator change on that side of the ball is a positive and the schedule really only has two tough contests against the big Atlantic Division powers Clemson and Florida State. Bobby Petrino's squad still seems a tick behind those two teams but a double-digit win total still seems very likely at the end of the year.
Mike Ferguson (@MikeWFerguson)
With Lamar Jackson returning, Louisville should again be explosive on offense, but the skill players around him aren't as proven. Brandon Radcliffe, James Quick, Jamari Staples and Cole Hikutini are all gone and Jackson will have to rely on less proven players to help key opposing defenses from keying in on the resigning Heisman winner. Toward the end of last season, opposing teams got much better at figuring Jackson and the Louisville offense out.
On the defensive side of the ball, Louisville has a decent corps returning, a group that’s headlined by linebackers James Hearns and Stacy Thomas as well as stud cornerback Jaire Alexander.
The slate for Louisville however, is not an easy one. Opening up with Purdue, at North Carolina and then hosting reigning national champion Clemson isn't a calm September. In October, the Cardinals will have to travel to NC State on a short week and visit ACC favorite Florida State. If Louisville can survive the first two months, things cool down in November.
Jon Kinne (@JonRKinne)
Lamar Jackson is back and his return means that Louisville will be a dangerous team. But with so many of the skill positions turning over, Jackson will have to develop new bonds with new players. Also, the offensive line, which was dismal at the end of last year, must improve greatly if Louisville is going to challenge in the Atlantic. Defensively, the secondary should be strong and there are two quality ends. But the interior of the line is a question as is the depth all along the front. And in a trade of defensive coordinators with Mississippi State, the Cardinals got a guy that led the nation’s 110th-ranked unit while the guy that guided a No. 14 defense is going to Starkville. The Cardinals have plenty of winnable games, but I can’t see them being a real contender in the Atlantic this season.