The Comeback’s college football preview coverage continues as we drive closer to the top 10 in our Top 50 countdown. Up next in our rankings are Louisville Cardinals. We’ll continue to move up the list each day until the beginning of the regular season when all the fun begins.

Will the Louisville Cardinals win the ACC Championship?

Considering how well the team played last year, that’s the appropriate question to ask heading into the 2017 campaign. Sure, the Cardinals closed out the season by losing three straight contests. However, as we saw against ACC powerhouses Florida State and Clemson, when Louisville is playing well, it’s capable of beating anybody.

There’s no reason to think that the Cardinals won’t be just as good this season. Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson – who racked up 5,114 yards of total offense and was responsible for 51 touchdowns – is back to lead what will be one of the most explosive offenses in the country this season. On the other side of the ball, UL welcomes back seven starters from a stellar unit that ranked 14th in total defense, 10th in third down conversion percentage, and eighth in yards per play.

No. 12 Louisville Cardinals

2016 Record: 9-4 overall, 7-1 in the ACC (lost to LSU 29-9 in the Citrus Bowl)
Coach: Bobby Petrino (67-22 at Louisville, 109-43 overall)

Last year in a nutshell

Don’t let the late-season slump fool you: the 2016 campaign was a huge success. Louisville got off to a great start in conference play, scoring 125 points against Syracuse and Florida State. The Cards then dropped a close one on the road against Clemson, coming up one yard short of an upset in Death Valley. That loss was the lone blemish on UL’s conference record, as the team would win its final five games en route to a share of the Atlantic Division title.

Despite the not-so-great ending, Louisville proved that it could beat anybody – including the eventual national champions. The Cardinals were strong on both sides of the ball last season, ranking in the top 10 in yards per play on both offense (4th, 7.21) and defense (8th, 4.69). With a number of key players returning, UL should finish among the nation’s leaders in these categories again this year.

Recruiting Roundup

247 Sports Composite Ranking: 25th

Louisville signed the 6th best recruiting class in the ACC according to The school signed players from twelve states, with most of them coming from Georgia (7) and Florida (4). It inked three four-star prospects, including two players ranked in the top 225 nationally. Freshman cornerback Russ Yeast has impressed coaches in camp, and could earn playing time this fall. Don’t be surprised if TreSean Smith and Anthony Johnson do as well.

Three Key Stats

559.9 The number of yards per game that Louisville averaged against ACC opponents last season. It’s an understatement to say that the Cardinal offense was unstoppable in conference play in 2016. After all, UL racked up over 450 yards in every game, and only failed to crack the 500-yard barrier twice (491 versus Wake, 469 against Duke). While it’s unrealistic to expect the Cards to improve on these numbers in 2017 with so many players departing, the team will need to post comparable stats to compete for the division title this fall.

4.69The number of yards per play that the UL D allowed last year, the eighth-best total in the nation. Yes, I know I mentioned this stat earlier, but it bears repeating. While everyone knew how good the offense was last year, the defense quietly emerged as one of the better units in the league. This fall, Louisville welcomes back seven starters from that stellar unit, as well as Trevon Young, who recorded 8.5 sacks in 2015 before sitting out last season due to injury. Although the Cardinals don’t have to hold their opponents to less than five yards per play – something they did 10 times last year – it will need to improve upon the 6.52 ypp that it allowed in its four losses in 2016.

48The number of sacks Louisville allowed last season. Make no mistake about it: Jackson was the most electrifying player in college football last year. If I had a nickel for every time he made a nifty move to avoid trouble, I could probably retire. With that said, he was sacked too many times last season, and took way too many hits. For the Cardinals to make noise in both the ACC and National Championship races, they must do a better job of protecting their star quarterback.

Make or Break Games for 2017

Sept. 15 vs. Clemson

Record in the last five meetings: 0-3 (only three meetings in the series)
Last year’s result: L, 42-36

Why it matters: If you want to be the champ, you have to beat the champ. Clemson has won the last two ACC championships, and has enough talent to win it again this season. The Cardinals erased a 28-10 halftime deficit in last year’s contest, only to watch Deshaun Watson and company mount a furious fourth quarter comeback to earn the victory. Although it’s only the second conference game of the season, it’s as close to a “must-win contest” as they come.

Oct. 20 at Florida State

Record in the last five meetings: 2-3
Last year’s result: W, 63-20

Why it matters: Although Clemson is the defending champion, Florida State is the heavy favorite to win both the Atlantic division and the conference title. The Cardinals absolutely embarrassed the Seminoles last fall, racking up 530 yards and 63 points. As a result of the blowout, FSU will come into this game more fired up than usual, eager to avenge last season’s loss. Since this contest could ultimately decide which team will advance to the ACC title game, it goes without saying that UL needs to get a “W” in this one.

Three Key Players

Lamar Jackson, QB – At the risk of stating the obvious, Jackson was the most dangerous player in college football last year. He excelled as a passer, throwing for 3,543 yards and 30 touchdowns, while averaging 8.7 yards per attempt. However, he was also an effective runner, rushing for 1,571 yards and 21 touchdowns. Although the Cardinals offense will lose some key players from last season, Jackson should be just as productive this fall. He’s the type of player that makes everyone around him better.

Jaylen Smith, WR – As noted in our ACC receivers piece, Smith will have a breakout season in 2017. He was the Cardinals top deep threat last year, averaging 22.19 yards per catch, with eight of his receptions netting 30 yards or more. With 56 catches in two seasons, he’s easily the most experienced receiver on the roster, which means he should be the go-to guy for the team this fall. Look for Jackson to go to him early and often to keep opposing defenses honest.

Trevon Young, DE – Young’s addition to the lineup will make an already-solid pass rush even better. He did a great job of getting after the quarterback in 2015, recording 8.5 sacks. On those rare occasions when he didn’t come up with a sack, Young still made things happen, breaking up two passes, forcing two fumbles, and recording an interception. Regardless of whether he lines up at end or linebacker (as he did in the past), he’ll be an important part of the Cardinal defense.

Bold Predictions

Louisville will finish the season in the top 10, just like it did in Petrino’s fourth season during his first stint at the school.

Defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon will be a finalist for the Broyles Award. He’ll do things a little bit differently than Todd Grantham did, but he will ultimately get the same results.

About Terry P. Johnson

Terry Johnson is the Associate Editor for The Student Section. He is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and the National Football Foundation.