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If Louisville was in the Coastal division, things would be a little different, not having to compete with Clemson and Florida State for the Atlantic title. Unfortunately, the Cardinals are in the Atlantic and have to climb that hill at some point if they want to take the next step forward. They finished 8-5 last year after losing the first three games of the year and competed against the ACC's best. A bowl win over Texas A&M gives this team hopes for more in Bobby Petrino's third year at the helm, especially with 18 returning starters.
The biggest returning player is no doubt quarterback Lamar Jackson. He showed flashes last year (960 rushing yards, 11 TDs), but his mediocre arm (54.7% completion, 12 TDs, 8 INTs) was also an issue. Either way, he ran for 412 yards and four touchdowns in the final two games of the year, which is about all the hype he needs. But things were juiced up even more after Jackson threw for eight touchdowns in the spring scrimmage. Now that should have defenses worried.
But it's not just Jackson returning to the offense. Top running back Brandon Radcliff (634 yards, 7 TDs) returns, as well as his backups. None of the wide outs really stood out last season, but Jamari Staples (638 yards, 3 TDs), James Quick (624 yards, 5 TDs), Jaylen Smith (376 yards) and Ja'Quay Savage should all be factors again.
The biggest question for this offense comes on the line where they struggled throughout 2015. With nine guys returning to the two-deep, though, better things are expected from this group and that should lead to a better rushing game. Louisville's offense was hit-or-miss last year, while the defense carved the way for lower-scoring wins.
That could be a little different this year, at least offensively, but the defense will still be one of the better units in the conference.
The Cardinals lost some big names on defense, but they also return plenty of talent. That starts with tackle DeAngelo Brown and linebackers Keith Kelsey and Devonte Fields. To go with those guys, the secondary is filled with experience and starters as all four guys return to what should be an improved unit. Sure, they have some holes to fill up front, but this is going to be one of the better defenses in the conference again.
The problem for Louisville comes in the schedule as they have one of the odder slates around. The Cardinals close the season with two non-conference games and two of their four non-conference games come on the road. But to make matters worse, they host Florida State in early September and then travel to Clemson only a couple weeks later. Beating FSU early on would be great and could set the tone for the season, but easier said than done. To better last year's record, the Cardinals will need to win at Houston, something they couldn't do at home in 2015.
The Cardinals have the pieces to challenge in the ACC, but none of that is going to happen if they lose to FSU and Clemson early on. Jackson gives this offense a dynamic piece to go with an experienced defense. Ten wins isn't off the table for this team.
2016 Louisville Cardinals Football Schedule
Sept. 3 vs. Charlotte
Sept. 9 at Syracuse
Sept. 17 vs. Florida State
Sept. 24 at Marshall
Oct. 1 at Clemson
Oct. 14 vs. Duke
Oct. 22 vs. NC State
Oct. 29 at Virginia
Nov. 5 at Boston College
Nov. 12 vs. Wake Forest
Nov. 17 at Houston
Nov. 26 vs. Kentucky
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