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Ranking the Toughest Games on Louisville's College Football Schedule in 2016

Lamar Jackson

Lamar Jackson

For the last five seasons, the ACC champion has either been the Clemson Tigers or the Florida State Seminoles. If there’s one team that could change that, it is the Louisville Cardinals.

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Related: Louisville Cardinals 2016 Preview and Prediction

After beginning the 2015 season just 2-4, head coach Bobby Petrino's Cardinals won six out of their last seven games to finish 8-5. With 16 returning starters, Louisville is a dark horse pick to win the ACC championship this fall.

The road through the ACC won’t be an easy one as the Cardinals will have to play both Florida State and Clemson since all three are in the Atlantic Division. Louisville also has a tough non-conference slate with road games to Houston and Marshall on tap.

Let’s take a look at the Cardinals’ schedule and rank the games from the easiest to the most difficult.

12. Sept. 1 vs. Charlotte

In its first season in the FBS, Charlotte went just 2-10 in 2015. The 49ers shouldn’t pose too much of a threat for the Cardinals. This will be a good game for quarterback Lamar Jackson to pad his stats and to gain some confidence heading into the ACC opener against Syracuse a week later.

11. Nov. 12 vs. Wake Forest

The Demon Deacons had a rough 2015 season, going just 3-9 and recording only one win (1-7) in ACC play. Wake Forest struggled mightily last season scoring points in conference play, averaging 15 points per contest. The Demon Deacons will be more experienced in head coach Dave Clawson’s third season, but the Cardinals still enjoy a sizeable advantage when it comes to overall talent. This game should be a relatively easy one for Louisville at home.

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10. Oct. 29 at Virginia

There’s a new era in Charlottesville as the Cavaliers hired Bronco Mendenhall last December after Mike London resigned. While there’s no doubt Virginia hired the right coach to lead them back to respectability in the ACC, it will take some time before a team that was 4-8 a season ago is ready hang with the Cardinals.

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9. Sept. 9 at Syracuse

Syracuse also will be breaking in a new head coach this season as Dino Babers comes over from Bowling Green. Babers will be taking over an Orange team that was 4-8 a year ago and has struggled to stay above water consistently in the ACC since joining the conference in 2013.

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The Cardinals will have to watch out for talented quarterback Eric Dungey, who should be a perfect fit for Babers’ hurry-up spread offense.

8. Oct. 14 vs. Duke

Even though the Duke football program has stability for the first time in a while, the team faces a lot of questions heading into the 2016 season. The health of quarterback Thomas Sirk is unknown after the fifth-year senior ruptured his Achilles during a team workout in February.

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Duke also will have to replace safety Jeremy Cash, the ACC Defensive Player of the Year last season who has moved on to the NFL. If head coach David Cutcliffe can lead the Blue Devils to a fifth straight bowl game that would certainly be a big accomplishment considering where the program was before his arrival.

7. Oct. 22 vs. NC State

The Wolfpack went 7-6 last season, ending the campaign with a loss in the Belk Bowl to Mississippi State. With quarterback Jacoby Brissett now in the NFL, NC State’s will be led by Matt Dayes, one of the most underrated running backs.

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Before going down with a season-ending injury, Dayes led the NCAA in rushing through eight games with 865 yards, to go along with 12 touchdowns.

6. Nov. 5 at Boston College

In 2015, Boston College was the top defense in the country in terms of yards allowed. So some may wonder why the team finished with a 3-9 record? It’s: the Eagles’ offense was beyond terrible.

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Graduate transfer quarterback Patrick Towles should help improve the team’s offense. And if running back Jon Hillman can return to 100 percent that will provide a boost to Boston College’s ground game.

5. Nov. 26 vs. Kentucky

Rivalry games are always difficult because your opponent usually knows you better than most teams. This year's Governor’s Cup matchup in Lexington shouldn't be any different.

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After back-to-back 5-7 seasons, the Wildcats should be a contender to make their first bowl game since 2010. With new coordinators coming over from Cincinnati, expect the Wildcats to look and (hopefully) perform differently on offense this fall.

4. Sept. 24 at Marshall

Last season, true freshman quarterback Chase Litton threw for 2,605 yards and 23 touchdowns with just eight interceptions. With an experienced offensive line, the Thundering Herd could finish with double-digit wins again in 2016.

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Despite the edge in talent level, traveling to Huntington, West Va., will not be an easy trip for the Cardinals.

3. Nov. 17 at Houston

The Cougars were one of the surprise teams in the FBS last season, finishing 13-1 including a victory over Florida State in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. Expectations are even higher for Houston in 2016 as some are predicting head coach Tom Herman’s team has a chance at earning a spot in the College Football Playoff.

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Houston is replacing five starters on defense, but the key to the Cougars’ success is on the other side of the ball. Louisville will need to find a way to contain dual-threat quarterback Greg Ward Jr. as he is the engine that makes Herman’s offense hum.

2. Sept. 17 vs. Florida State

Louisville fans will find out early if their Cardinals are an ACC contender or pretender this season. Florida State will likely enter the season ranked among the top five, so this will be a huge test for Louisville at home.

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No one knows who will be the Seminoles’ starting quarterback this season, but whoever it is will have a lot of talent around them. Last season in Tallahassee, the Seminoles defeated the Cardinals 41-21.

1. Oct. 1 at Clemson

Going on the road to Death Valley is always a tall task. Going on the road to face the possible preseason No. 1 team in the country is even more difficult.

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The Tigers fell short in their quest to win the program’s first national championship since 1981 when they lost to Alabama 40-35, but the team will be loaded once again in 2016. This game is by far the toughest game on Louisville’s schedule and for good reason. Should the Cardinals pull off the upset it would define their season  regardless of what happens in any other game.

— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, Pro Player Insiders and is a reporter for Sports Talk Florida. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.