Athlon's College Football top 25 countdown for 2012 continues with No. 23 Louisville. The Cardinals are a team on the rise under coach Charlie Strong and are Athlon's pick to win the Big East in 2012. Louisville has a promising core of young talent on defense and a rising star at quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater.
Can Louisville Finish Unbeaten in Big East Play in 2012?
David Fox (@DavidFox615)
For as much of a punching bag the Big East is – and will continue to be – the conference is tough to win outright. In seven seasons since the league reformed, only two teams have gone undefeated in Big East play (2005 West Virginia and 2009 Cincinnati). In 2012, Louisville probably will be most people’s pick to win the Big East, but that doesn’t mean the Cardinals have the look of an unbeaten team. All season last year, Charlie Strong was disappointed in his team’s ability to handle success. After defeating Kentucky, the Cardinals lost three in a row, including a home loss to Marshall. After defeating West Virginia, the Cardinals lost at home to Pittsburgh. After back-to-back road wins to end the regular season, Louisville lost in the bowl game. Now, this same group will enter the season as Big East favorites. There’s a lot to like about Louisville. The offensive line and Teddy Bridgewater improved once the conference season began, and the defense should remain solid. Still, there are enough question marks – the run game, Bridgewater’s three interceptions in the bowl game – to make a 7-0 Big East season a tall order.
Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
Can I answer this after the Week 3 contest against non-conference opponent North Carolina? Should they toppled Kentucky in Week 1 (which should be easy) and the Tar Heels (which won't be easy at all), all signs will point to an unbeaten Big East championship season for Louisville. Or possibly even more than that. But this is the Big East and strange things tend to happen in this conference. Since 2002, only two teams have gone undefeated in Big East play — West Virginia in 2005 and Cincinnati in 2009. In fact, the league champ has had at least two losses in three of the last five seasons.
While the Cardinals appear to be the best Big East team since that '09 Bearcats team, there are too many quality opponents — South Florida, Pitt, Rutgers, Cincinnati — for me to pick the Cardinals to finish unblemished. Louisville has lost four straight to both Cincy and Pitt and has lost two out of three to USF. With tough road trips to Rutgers, Pitt and Syracuse in league play, I will go with at least one slip-up along the way. It is just too balanced of a league, but a trip to a BCS bowl is still very much in the, well, Cards.
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Louisville has a good shot to finish Big East play unbeaten, but I think they will lose at least one game. However, there are a couple of factors working in Louisville’s favor to finish Big East play unbeaten. All six of the Cardinals’ losses (two in conference play) were by eight points or less last year. Considering the youth on the roster last season, the experienced should help pay off in the form of another win or two in 2012. Improving the turnover margin is another area that could help Louisville pick up more victories, especially after forcing only 21 takeaways last year.
Although Louisville is clearly the No. 1 team in the Big East, there is not a ton of separation between teams ranked 2-4. Rutgers, South Florida and Pittsburgh are the teams likely to be picked in that range, but each has question marks. The two dates to circle in Big East play will be games against Pittsburgh (Oct. 13) and Rutgers (Nov. 29). It’s possible the Cardinals could lose to Syracuse or South Florida, but those two road tests stand out as the biggest obstacles to an unbeaten season.
Charlie Strong has Louisville positioned to become a Big East title contender and consistent top 25 team for the next couple of years. The roster is stocked with youth and talent and more help is on the way with another solid recruiting class. I won’t be shocked if Louisville finishes Big East play at 7-0, but considering how difficult it is to sweep conference foes, I think it’s more likely they end up at 6-1 or 5-2.
CAN Louisville go undefeated in Big East play? Yes. WILL the Cardinals go 7-0 in the Big East? Probably not, but they have the best shot of any team in the conference of accomplishing the feat in 2012. Charlie Strong's squad should certainly be near the top of the Big East standings by the end of the year, as 12 starters (six on each side of the ball) return from last year's 7-6 team that played in the Belk Bowl.
On offense, Teddy Bridgewater is back under center as the sophomore looks to build on his Big East Rookie of the Year campaign in 2011, along with four starters on the offensive line. The defense, which finished second in the conference in both total and scoring defense last season, welcomes back the entire secondary and as a whole should continue its strong play. In the first two years with Strong as head coach, Louisville's defense has finished 14th and 23rd in the nation in total defense.
Louisville seemingly has the necessary pieces in place to contend for the Big East title this season, a task made easier by not only West Virginia's departure to the Big 12, but also head coaching changes at both Pittsburgh and Rutgers, which appear to be the Cardinals' toughest competition at this point. Louisville opens its Big East slate at Pittsburgh on Oct. 13 and finishes the season at Rutgers on Nov. 29. Outside of these two games, Louisville should be able to navigate the rest of their conference games with little trouble.
That said, I think it's too much to ask any team to go undefeated in conference play, let alone a Louisville team that is not without its weaknesses or question marks. In the end, I think Louisville will come up short once in Big East play, and knowing the unpredictability that is college football, this one loss will most likely come in upset fashion. Still, 6-1 in the Big East is nothing to be ashamed of, especially if it results in an invitation to a BCS bowl come January.
Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
The Cardinals look like the clear-cut favorite in the Big East, but I do not see Charlie Strong’s club sweeping league play only because that is so difficult to accomplish. The offense should be much-improved in Teddy Bridgewater’s second season, and four starters return on the offensive line. However, this is a team that ranked 103rd in the nation in total offense a year ago. The maturation of Bridgewater, a rising star, and a young receivers group should change that ranking significantly, but there may be some hiccups along the way that would prevent winning every conference game. The defense should be solid once again, led by Adrian Bushell and Hakeem Smith in the secondary. Louisville has tough trips to Pittsburgh and Rutgers, and USF has the athletes to play with anybody if the Bulls are focused. It would not surprise me to see the Cardinals run the league because of the talent on the roster, but I’ll predict a 6-1 Big East record and a conference crown for Louisville.
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