As we countdown to kickoff in September, we’re going to be doing a team-by-team opponent preview each week over the spring/summer. This week, we’re previewing Syracuse’s matchup with Louisville on Sept. 3 with three major storylines.
The Louisville Cardinals were expected to take a leap forward in 2021, but injuries and poor performance in one-score games led to a 6-7 record and a 31-28 loss to Air Force in the First Responder Bowl.
Going into his fourth year however, head coach Scott Satterfield has overseen an impressive turnaround in the culture and relative success of his program. One of the top offensive minds in the country, Satterfield’s Cardinals boast a hybrid ground/air attack that piles up the points, but has been undone by a defense often unable to hold its own.
MALIK CUNNINGHAM RUNS THE SHOW
Orange fans need no introduction to Cunningham. In his last two games against SU, Malik accounted for five touchdowns in both of them. Last season, Cunningham had 20 rushing touchdowns as a quarterback. The 6’1” 200-pounder is an elite rushing threat on top of having a cannon for an arm, and Satterfield knows how to use him perfectly.
Assuredly a first round pick when he enters the NFL Draft due to his talent and athletic profile, Cunningham decided to return for his final year of eligibility at UofL. With him on the field, the Cardinals can expect to win every game they play, the only real improvement needing to be the Cardinals as a team figuring out how to close out and win those crucial one-score games. They were 1-3 in such games in 2021.
EXCELLENT RECRUITING CLASS
One thing that has marked Satterfield’s time in Kentucky has been his ability to recruit. UofL has one of the higher-regarded staffs in the country, and that’s evidenced by their ability to produce NFL talent, and their recruiting grade going into 2023.
That class is ranked ninth nationally, first in the ACC, and has the best average prospect rating (0.8873) in team history. Part of the turnaround by the coaching staff is an increased financial commitment from the school, expanded social media efforts, and bringing in one of their top alma-mater to help run the program.
The team added former Cardinals great Deion Branch as their Director of Player Development. Having a former NFL wide receiver and Super Bowl MVP in the building to help develop players certainly helps in the recruiting and development department. The success of MVP quarterback and former Cardinal Lamar Jackson -who had his jersey retirement ceremony in a game against Syracuse this past year- doesn’t hurt either, with multi-talented rushing quarterback prospects eager to take their talents to a system like Satterfield’s.
LAST PIECE OF THE PUZZLE IS THE DEFENSE
If there is a negative throughout Satterfield’s tenure it’s been the inability to field a competitive defense. The Cards ranked 84th in the country giving up 403.3 ypg, and and 77th with 27.31 ppg. Even with as electric an offense as they had, it was simply too hard to continue to score at the rate their defense was giving up points, particularly against stronger competition.
The team is losing linebacker C.J. Avery, a tackle machine who has led them in that category the past three years to the NFL draft, but retains important pieces on defense. It could be argued that injuries have hurt the defense more-so than poor play, as both Monty Montgomery and Kei’Trel Clark return healthy from season ending injuries in 2021. Montgomery led the team in sacks from the linebacker position with four in 2020, and Clark is a rising star cornerback who amassed an impressive 19 pass break ups in the last two years before injury.
Louisville has spent the last few years as a team that needed just a bit more luck and some better play in key moments to hit 9+ wins. They certainly have the talent on offense, and if they can stay healthy defensively then they should be able to tip the scales in an ACC whose powers are shifting more and more by the year.