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Syracuse football 2018 opponent preview: Louisville Cardinals

The Cards are rebuilding in the wake of Lamar Jackson’s departure. Can Syracuse take advantage?

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Louisville Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

The Syracuse Orange football season won’t kick off until August 31. But let’s not pretend that would stop me from discussing the team at all -- and it hasn’t. We’re already almost done with opponent previews for 2018.

The Orange face yet another challenging schedule this year (and odds say we’re looking at something around 4.5 wins). So it’s not going to be easy, even with an improved and/or healthier team. Still, we’re looking at the positives wherever possible. Today’s foe:

Louisville Cardinals

School: University of Louisville

Mascot: Cardinals

#BRAND Slogan: “Louisville First, Cards Forever” (frequently abbreviated as #L1C4)

Alternate #BRAND Slogan Suggestions: “Throw It In the Bag” or “Good Thing We Never Won a Football Title, Otherwise We’d Probably Have to Vacate That Too”

Recommended Blog: Card Chronicle

Conference: Atlantic Coast Conference

Coach: Bobby Petrino, 5th/9th season. The Carroll College quarterback went right into coaching once his playing days were done, hanging around Mountain Time Zone from 1983 through 1997, with stops at Caroll, Weber State, Idaho, Nevada, Arizona State and Utah State. Petrino was Louisville’s offensive coordinator in 1998, then spent three years with the Jacksonville Jaguars before taking over as the OC at Auburn. A year later, he was the Cards’ head coach, leading them to 41 wins in four seasons before bailing for the Atlanta Falcons. He bailed on Atlanta after 13 games to coach Arkansas. His tenure with the Razorbacks would end unceremoniously despite on-field success. WKU gave him a shot in 2013, then Louisville took him back in 2014. Seems we’re coming up on that time again, no?

2017 Record: (8-5) (4-4)

Recapping Last Season:

Louisville came into the season ranked in the top 20 given the fact that Heisman winner Lamar Jackson was under center once again. The Cardinals opened with tight wins over Purdue and North Carolina, then got throttled by Clemson. They were able to hang around the top 25 until mid-October, when a 45-42 loss to Boston College finally knocked them out. U of L did win four of five to end the regular season, however (including a 56-10 drubbing of an Eric Dungey-less Syracuse team). They’d lose the TaxSlayer bowl to Mississippi State, however.

Despite taking on five losses for the year, the offense was still incredibly formidable behind Jackson. Louisville was third in the country in total offense (545 yards per game), and they managed to be top-15 in both rushing and passing yards per game. Jackson accounted for over 5,200 yards and 45 touchdowns. He very well could’ve won the Heisman for a second consecutive season while putting the team on his back. Jackson had help from outside playmakers like Jaylen Smith and Dez Fitzpatrick. But the run game was effectively him and the opportunities his presence afforded other runners here and there.

The biggest problem for the Cardinals last year was a defense that couldn’t stop most opponents for the first half of the season, though did improve enough in the back half to finish more respectably (ended up ranked mid-60s against both the run and pass). Louisville generated an average amount of pressure (27 sacks, 79 TFLs), and was able to force 23 turnovers. Seniors Trumaine Washington and Chucky Williams (combined seven interceptions) were key in the secondary.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Louisville Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

2018 Season Outlook:

Life without Jackson is going to get interesting. It’s not as if teams can’t replace starting quarterbacks. But Jackson accounted for such a large share of the offensive output that the Cardinals are guaranteed to take some sort of step back on that side of the ball this year. At least they’ll return four of five on the line and all three starting receivers to make up for it. Non-home games versus both Alabama and Clemson will certainly complicate matters, though. A potential bright side of the schedule is that they’ll get Georgia Tech, Florida State, NC State and Kentucky all at home.

In Jackson’s place, the team will be led by sophomore quarterback Jawon Pass, who performed well enough with limited reps last year — 23-of-33 for 238 yards and two touchdowns, plus another 62 yards and a score on the ground. Pass, appropriately, is more of a thrower than a runner, and having those wideouts back will be to his benefit early. Smith, Fitzpatrick and Seth Dawkins combined for 147 catches, 2,321 yards and 20 TDs in 2017 — offsetting the minimal rushing experience returning. Dae Williams is your top rusher, with just 235 yards last season. It’s going to be a challenge to get the run game going without Lamar.

Defensively, it’s a full rebuild, as the team replaces nine starters. Last year’s lead tackler Dorian Ethridge returns at linebacker, but the next four names on the list (Williams, Zykiesis Cannon, Stacy Thomas and Trevon Young) have all departed. Jon Greenard and Dee Smith should help fortify the back-seven, however, returning after stronger 2017 campaigns. Greenard led the team in sacks (seven) as a sophomore last year, and same goes for tackles for loss. Any improvement this group can display under new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder will likely be because of the play of Greenard and Ethridge (among others, of course).

NCAA Football: Citrus Bowl-Louisiana State vs Louisville Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Syracuse Game Date: Friday, November 9

Location: Carrier Dome, Syracuse, N,Y.

Odds of Orange Victory: 35 percent

Very Early Outlook:

As mentioned numerous times, Jackson’s a big loss. But there is talent on this roster to back fill. Concerns over the run game and defense are going to linger for much of the season, but should be resolved by this point. Louisville’s talent level likely indicates a larger chance of victory than what I indicated above. But if we’re assuming a healthy Eric Dungey, the Cardinals are playing on short rest right after a road date at Clemson. Syracuse has performed well on Friday nights of late and we’ve been good for one home upset per year under Dino Babers. Not saying it’s going to happen, but... there’s a greater chance than normal here.