Chuck Burton/AP
By Martin Rickman
July 21, 2014

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Change is one thing that Bobby Petrino has always seemed to embrace. With a new (yet familiar) coach, a new conference and a new starting quarterback, Louisville will need that sort of adaptability as Petrino attempts to guide the Cardinals through their debut season in the ACC.

Louisville’s run under former coach Charlie Strong was, in a word, strong. The Cards went 37-15 in Strong’s four seasons and famously routed Florida in the Sugar Bowl following the 2012 campaign. Much of that success can be attributed to the stellar play of Teddy Bridgewater, who completed 68.4 percent of his passes with a 3-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio during his three years as the starter. Bridgewater bypassed his senior year on campus in favor of the NFL, and he was ultimately selected 32nd overall by the Minnesota Vikings.

The attention surrounding Bridgewater often overshadowed the defense Strong built before he accepted the Texas job in January. In a lot of ways, that’s the unit Louisville needs to address if it hopes to hit the ground running in the ACC. Bridgewater was one of the best quarterbacks in program history, and he covered up plenty of other flaws. Petrino acknowledged as much during ACC media days on Monday. “We’re never going to replace a guy like Teddy,” he said.

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Petrino has been able to light up scoreboards with limited offensive talent in the past, and there’s no evidence to suggest he won't succeed this time around. Led by prized NFL prospect DeVante Parker, Louisville’s receiving corps boasts speed across the board. As long as Petrino can find a player to get the ball to those guys, the offense should be fine.

Will Gardner is the best bet to handle the quarterbacking duties in 2014. Petrino said the redshirt sophomore has good timing and uncorks an impressive deep ball. Given the experience across the rest of the offense, any passer coming in should have weapons at his disposal.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the ball, the Cardinals shelled out big money to hire defensive coordinator Todd Grantham away from Georgia. The Bulldogs’ defense finished 43rd in S&P+ ratings in 2013, down from 14th in ‘12. “The thing that’s very intriguing with Todd is he knows how to get players to play at the highest level and excel and have great years,” Petrino said on Monday. “His relationship with players is very, very good. There’s no question he was a guy who was at the top of my list and then Tom Jurich said, ‘Go get him.’”

Only four defensive starters -- Lorenzo Mauldin, James Burgess, Charles Gaines and Terell Floyd -- return from last year’s squad, and although Strong brought in significant talent on that side of the ball, the learning curve could be steep. Playing in Louisville’s favor is a relatively backloaded schedule that should allow the team to get comfortable: If the Cardinals can get past Miami (a team it beat 36-9 in last year’s Russell Athletic Bowl) in their season opener, they should be favored in their next five contests (Murray State, at Virginia, at FIU, Wake Forest, at Syracuse) heading into an Oct. 11 trip to Death Valley. Starting hot would do wonders for this team, but that’s easier said than done.

Date opponent
Sept. 1 Miami
Sept. 6 Murray State
Sept. 13 at Virginia
Sept. 20 at FIU
Sept. 27 Wake Forest
Oct. 3 at Syracuse
Oct. 11 at Clemson
Oct. 18 NC State
Oct. 30 Florida State
Nov. 8 at Boston College
Nov. 22 at Notre Dame
Nov. 29 Kentucky

Just take a look at the past few teams to make major moves in realignment. Starting quickly out of the gate is far from a guarantee. For every Texas A&M, which rode Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel to an 11-2 mark in its first year in the SEC, there are TCU and Colorado and Utah, which have all struggled mightily despite thriving in the seasons leading up to joining the Power Five.

The fact that the Cards were placed in the Atlantic Division didn’t do them any favors. Florida State looks to be as good or better than the group who won the national title, and Clemson is coming off three consecutive 10-win seasons.

“When you look back on last year and you realize that you’re going in to play a conference that has the national championship team and individual players that won just about every single individual award there is out there, you know it’s going to be a very competitive conference,” Petrino said. “The division that we’re in reminds me a lot of when we were in the SEC West. You have the defending national champion, but you also have every team in it that’s capable of beating the other team every given week.”

Echoed Mauldin, “You’ve got the FSUs, the Clemsons and the Notre Dames, and you get a chance to go out nationally and say we beat these teams.”

Jurich, Louisville's athletic director, took a major gamble in hiring Petrino. The coach spurned the school for the Atlanta Falcons in January 2007, resigned from Atlanta to take the Arkansas job after 13 games and was fired from that position in the wake of the motorcycle crash in April '12 that led to findings of an affair and the misleading of athletic director Jeff Long. His short stint at Western Kentucky did little to dissuade anyone from thinking Petrino has a wandering eye, though his reputation for winning remains firmly intact.

“One of the things I’m going to work hard on is coaching the person as much as the player,” Petrino said. “I think [with] the experiences I’ve had that I can help young men with the obstacles that they’re going to presented with off the field and the situations that are going to come up and be able to help them and give them second chances.”

The Cardinals are finally getting a seat at the table. Everything is a bit new, but everyone will know whether Louisville truly belongs soon enough.

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