In his third season of "Take Two" of Louisville, Bobby Petrino has the Cardinals right where he wants them. Almost.
The 19th-ranked Cardinals open the season at home Thursday night at Papa John's Stadium but the road brings bigger tests very soon, namely a Sept. 17 date with No. 4 Florida State and, two weeks later, a close-up with second-ranked Clemson.
"Now it's time to cut it loose," Petrino said Monday. "You're working hard and you get tired of going against the same guy every day in practice. And once in a while we get a little testy about it."
The Cardinals turn it loose Thursday (7 p.m. ET) against Charlotte, which went 2-10 last season. The 49ers are a 40-point underdog (39.5 as of Monday afternoon) and growing pains are expected in just the second season for the program at the FBS level. The football program is only five years old.
Charlotte's offense should be improved with Miami (Fla.) transfer Kevin Olsen at quarterback. Nine offensive starters return, however, offensive line play was a recurring issue in 2015, and Louisville brings relentless edge pressure.
While Petrino feels he knows his team far better this season than he did in his first two years since returning to Louisville, not everyone has a firm grip on what the Cardinals will showcase this week. Petrino said he left the depth chart to sports information director Rocco Gasparro and told media not to read much into it.
"We still practice (Tuesday)," Petrino said. "We've got a lot of work to do. We've got guys that we have to see that they're full speed ready to go."
As expectations go, the headliner is sophomore quarterback Lamar Jackson, who set a Music City Bowl record for total yards - 227 passing, 226 rushing - after guiding Louisville to a comeback win over Kentucky in the regular-season finale. Jackson is just one part of a loaded backfield that helped Petrino's offense hum late last season.
Petrino was relentless in fall camp and players said his expectations are clear - it's time to measure up to the Seminoles and Tigers, the teams most expect to compete for the Atlantic Coast Conference crown and national title this season.
Defense will dictate how soon that tale of the tape equals out for Louisville.
Four players on that side of the ball weighed entering the NFL draft. Each returned, led by linebackers Keith Kelsey and Devonte Fields. Louisville did subtract defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, the powerful and hyperactive interior rusher, but Petrino and defensive coordinator Todd Grantham are high on DeAngelo Brown as a good bet to ease the pain of that loss.
A fast start, this week and in September as a whole, might tell the tale of the Louisville season.
"A year ago we had a tough start to the season," Petrino said. "We were playing a bunch of young guys. What they did is they stuck together, they worked hard at practice, they took the losses hard. They found a way to get better and improve as the year went on and win some big games."