It’s a bit odd to still see Bobby Petrino at Louisville. He’s heading into his 9th overall season in the Ville, but just his 5th in a row. The reason that’s odd is because this will be the first time in his head coaching career that he’s stayed anywhere longer than four years. His first stint at Louisville lasted four seasons from 2003-2006. He then left and spent less than one year with the Atlanta Falcons in 2007 before bolting. From 2008-2011 he was the head coach at Arkansas but infamously wrecked his motorcycle and was fired. He took the 2012 season off but resurfaced in 2013 at Western Kentucky before returning to Louisville in 2014. His second go round with the Cardinals has not been nearly as successful as his first one. He has yet to win ten games in a season this time around (he did so twice in his first stint) and the natives are starting to get a little restless. 2018 feels like something of a make or break year for Petrino. If it didn’t happen with a Heisman Trophy winner in Lamar Jackson, and it doesn’t happen now, when will it happen for him at Louisville?
Obviously the biggest task facing Louisville this season is replacing Lamar Jackson. Jackson was electric for three years with the Cards. He put up utterly absurd numbers, had the Cardinals in the thick of the College Football Playoff discussion in 2016, won a Heisman Trophy and was eventually selected in the first round of the most recent NFL Draft. But he’s gone now and with him goes a massive part of the Louisville offense from the last three seasons. However, Bobby Petrino is nothing if not a brilliant offensive mind and he’s already got a stud in at QB. Jawon Pass (appropriate name for a QB right?) was a 4-star recruit out of Columbus, GA and came to Louisville and sat behind Jackson last season. He isn’t without a modicum of game experience however, as he appeared in several games in relief of Jackson last year. His stat line reads: 23 completions on 33 attempts (70%) for 238 yards and 2 TDs, with 0 INTs. It remains to be see if he can be or will be as prolific in the running game as Jackson was, but he’s got the arm strength and a coach who knows how to coach the QB position. The receiving corps looks pretty solid too, with the top three receivers from last year all returning. Jaylen Smith caught 60 passes for 980 yards and 7 TDs last year, but his status for the first part of the season is up in the air after he underwent an emergency appendectomy earlier this month. Dez Fitzpatrick brings 45 catches for 699 yards and 9 TDs from last year and Seth Dawkins returns his 42 catches for 642 yards and 4 TDs. A big question mark for this offense though will be the rushing attack as Louisville lost their top three rushers from last year: Jackson, Malik Williams and Reggie Bonnafon. Dae Williams is the top returning rusher with 235 yards and 3 TDs on 38 carries. A new QB and virtually a whole to RB core would normally be cause for concern on any offense, but with Bobby Petrino pulling the strings many fans should be able to rest much easier.
The defensive side of the ball however, should keep most Cardinals fans up at night. Petrino is on his third defensive coordinator in three years. 2016 was the last Cards fans saw of Todd Grantham, who despite being prone to giving up big plays in big moments (hence the phrase Third & Grantham), usually had a pretty solid down in and down out defense that was competent and played hard. However after the 2016 season he bolted for Mississippi State, who had fired their DC. Interestingly enough, the man Grantham replaced is the man who Bobby Petrino hired to replace Grantham. Peter Sirmon came to Louisville and was a disaster of the highest order from day 1. He was bad at Mississippi State and bad at Louisville. Under Sirmon’s watch, the Cardinals defense dropped from the 31st best defense to the 70th best defense. In 2016 the Cards gave up 23 points per game. In 2017 that number rose to 28 points per game with most of the same personnel. So Sirmon was dumped after the season. But instead of making a good replacement hire, Petrino whiffed badly again. He brought in former Georgia, Auburn and Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. I say former, because he hasn’t held a DC job since the first four games of 2016 at Notre Dame, where he was so bad that even his best buddy Brian Kelly (himself no big believer in playing defense) had to give him the boot early in the season. VanGorder’s schemes are very complex and if you’ve got a guy who understands it, you’re defense might play well. But seldom does any player understand it. Now, VanGorder might end up being much better than Peter Sirmon was (not that it would take much). He did win the Broyles Award in 2003 as the top assistant coach in college football. But his last few years as a full-time defensive coordinator have been bad. In 2012 his Auburn defense gave up 28 points per game. In 2014 his Notre Dame defense gave up 29 points per game. In 2015 it got a little bit better as the Irish only gave up 24 points per game but in 2016 it was as bad as it could get as he was fired four games into the season with his defense giving up 34 points per game (50 to a Texas team that won five games, 36 to a Michigan State team that won three games and 38 to a Duke team that won four games). If you’re a Cards fan, don’t expect much in the way of defensive competence.
The schedule is an interesting one. They only play four true road games, and only one of those road game is at a super tough place to play (Clemson). They open the season against Alabama at a neutral site in Orlando, a game in which the Cardinals are already nearly four touchdown underdogs. The home slate is decent, if a little unspectacular. They do get a visit from a rebuilding Florida State, plus visits by the other two FBS schools in the state (Western Kentucky and Kentucky). They also play Georgia Tech for the first time since joining the ACC in 2014. One interesting note on that is that Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson hates Brian VanGorder with the fires of seven Hells. This dates back to when Johnson left Georgia Southern to go to Navy and BVG was his replacement. Now, Johnson loves to run the triple option but BVG dismantled it and Johnson immediately had Navy schedule Georgia Southern so that he could, “beat Brian VanGorder’s ass.” Unfortunately, Johnson left Navy for Georgia Tech before that game happened (and VanGorder was fired for being terrible before that anyway).
It’s difficult to say how this season will shake out for Louisville. I can see any number of possibilities from 7-5 all the way to 10-2. Bobby Petrino can win football games. He can get good play out his QBs. But defense has always been his Achilles heel and this year will be no different. The schedule does shape up to put the Cards in a good spot to possibly go to a really good bowl game this year. If Jawon Pass can play like a four star recruit and the Louisville defense isn’t just abominable, then there’s no reason why the Cards can’t win 10 games this season.
2018 Louisville Cardinals Schedule
9/1 – Louisville vs. Alabama*
9/8 – Louisville vs. Indiana State
9/15 – Louisville vs. Western Kentucky
9/22 – Louisville @ Virginia
9/29 – Louisville vs. Florida State
10/5 – Louisville vs. Georgia Tech
10/13 – Louisville @ Boston College
10/27 – Louisville vs. Wake Forest
11/3 – Louisville @ Clemson
11/9 – Louisville @ Syracuse
11/17 – Louisville vs. NC State
11/24 – Louisville vs. Kentucky
*denotes game played at neutral site