After a highly successful inaugural season as a member of the ACC with a 9-4 (5-3 conference) record, Louisville is ready to build on that success. The Cardinals lost six players to the NFL draft on a defense that finished sixth nationally in FBS in yards allowed per game. This unit does return four starters, led by preseason ACC first-team defensive end Sheldon Rankins.
Louisville’s biggest challenge last year was and trying to find consistency and efficiency in head coach Bobby Petrino's high-powered offense, and that will be the case again in 2015. The Cardinals could define their entire season within the first six weeks, as they will embark on one the most challenging schedules in the nation. If the Cardinals can manage to get through the first half of the season with just one loss, they could find themselves in the discussion for a College Football Playoff spot up until the end.
Here now are Louisville's 12 regular season games, ranked from easiest to most difficult matchup.
12. Sept. 26 vs. Samford
This game comes at a perfect time on the schedule because there is a possibility that the Cardinals could be fighting to be .500. However, if the Cards can win two out of three leading into this game, they will set themselves up to stay in the Playoff hunt, while using new head coach Chris Hatcher’s Bulldogs team as a nice tune up.
11. Sept. 12 vs. Houston
This is the classic definition of a “trap game.” Houston possesses a stingy defense, while also having a decent, but not great offense. The problem with the Cougars is that the very things that make them weak are the things that make them sneaky. And if Louisville falls asleep at the wheel, even a little bit, it could find itself on the wrong end of the outcome.
10. Nov. 14 vs. Virginia
Cavaliers head coach Mike London has gotten his “hot seat” notice, after back-to-back subpar seasons. The Louisville game could come at a time that is “job saving” for London, as Virginia's schedule also is a challenging one. However, with so many question marks surrounding this team on both sides of the ball, Louisville should have an easy time at home against the Cavs.
9. Nov. 7 vs. Syracuse
Everyone thought that Syracuse would have a breakout season in 2014. Then starting QB Terrel Hunt went down in injury and that was that. The Orange struggled mightily with no offensive backup plan. Now Hunt has returned, but the Orange defense, which was the only bright spot of 2014, has completely changed. This is not a team that is ready for the next step. This is a team that is looking for identity. And Louisville will make Syracuse pay for it.
8. Oct. 30 (Friday) at Wake Forest
Wake Forest is a work in progress. But there IS progress being made. If this team gains momentum off of its early challenges, then the Demon Deacons could become a threat in the ACC. Wake Forest is the kind of threat that you must play well to defeat. Head coach Dave Clawson’s young team is hungry for success, and they have bought into the philosophy of their young coach. The Cardinals will have to be good and solid on both sides of the ball, especially defensively.
7. Nov. 21 at Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh is a problem. Pittsburgh is more than ready to take a giant leap this year with a scorching-hot new head coach in former Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, and with reigning ACC Player of the Year RB James Conner, as well as WR Tyler Boyd and QB Chad Voytik. The Panthers and The Cardinals will both field a lot of talent during this game, and if both teams play as well as expected, this game could decide a lot for the ACC title picture.
6. Oct. 24 vs. Boston College
Boston College's defense last season could be described in one word — nasty. The Eagles ranked 11th in FBS in total defense and second in rushing defense. Last year Boston College would not allow opponents to run the ball. Period. It took a breakout performance from then-freshman QB Reggie Bonnafon for the Cardinals to overcome the Eagles' stingy defense. Now the Eagles will return two stellar RBs in Jon Hilliman and Sherman Alston, who is poised to have a breakout season. The Cards will definitely be faced with a stronger and more passionate Eagles team, who will show up to Papa John’s Stadium thinking upset.
5. Oct. 3 at NC State
In a conference where coaching turnover has become common place, Dave Doeren seems to have the formula working, leading NC State from 3-9 to 8-5 in just one year. Doeren now returns a plethora of starters that include QB Jacoby Brissett, and maybe the nation's best RB duo in Shadrach Thornton and Matt Dayes, who combined for 1,480 yards and 14 TDs in 2014. Louisville was able to overcome the Wolfpack last year, but that was a young team, and it was at home. This game is on the road, and it is placed right before an even bigger statement game, Florida State. If the Cardinals look forward, or can’t match last year’s defensive prowess, this is a definite loss. The Wolfpack are THAT good.
4. Nov. 28 at Kentucky
The biggest problem with rivalry games is the scenarios that surround them. This one could be a problem. If Louisville is the sleeper that many think this team could be, then this game could become the reason why the Cardinals get into the College Football Playoff or not. If they can’t come out and dominate what looks to be a weaker Kentucky team, then like Baylor and TCU last year, it could cost them a spot in the Playoff. Then there also is the crazy scenario that the Wildcats could actually win this game because Louisville is simply uninterested or unmotivated. Petrino's Cardinals must stay focused and execute well on the road in the battle for the Governor's Cup.
3. Sept. 17 (Thursday) vs. Clemson
The good news for Louisville is that offensive coordinator Chad Morris is now at SMU. The bad news is that Clemson’s defense, which was ranked No. 1 last year, is still there, despite the fact that the Tigers lost several key players, including sack leader Vic Beasley and leading tackler Stephone Anthony. Throw in Heisman Trophy candidate QB Deshaun Watson, who is poised and ready to dominate, and this game may be the greatest challenge on Louisville’s schedule.
2. Oct. 17 at Florida State
The ACC champs lost Jameis Winston, along with other key components on the offensive line, and are still poised to make a serious chase at another conference title and College Football Playoff berth. There is skill, power, and talent EVERYWHERE on the field, and Louisville will have its hands full trying to slow the Seminoles down. Louisville is talented in its own right, and that may be the only reason why this game is close. This game will come down to simple execution and who can cut down the mistakes. If Louisville can do this, it may be the catalyst to its own ACC title run.
1. Sept. 5 vs. Auburn (in Atlanta)
This is the most significant game of the season, not because Auburn enters the season ranked sixth in the AP Top 25 poll. This game is the most significant of the season because of the perception that Auburn is a dominant team, potentially on its way to an SEC title and spot in the College Football Playoff, and a win against the Tigers places you squarely in the national championship conversation right out of the gates. It sets season-long expectations that will test the mettle of a growing football team. That however is easier said than done. The Cardinals will have to find a way to stop what appears to be the second coming of Cam Newton in QB Jeremy Johnson. But the good news is that this game is the first game of the season and Petrino is 10-0 in season openers.
— Written by Lloyd H. Spence Jr., who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Spence has covered both high school and college sports for several years, and has written for several outlets, including ESPNLouisville.com and CardinalSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @TalkinNOIZ