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The American Frontier: Louisville

Expected to win the conference (for one year), we continue to preview the Huskies schedule with defending Sugar Bowl Champion Louisville Cardinals

Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Sports

Things have been going way too good at Louisville lately. The team got invited to the ACC, won the Big East, stomped the Florida Gators in the Sugar Bowl and now come into the season as the runaway favorites to win the inaugural American Athletic Conference championship on their way out the door.

And why not? Louisville returns Heisman Trophy favorite Teddy Bridgewater at quarterback, boasts one of the hottest coaches in football in Charlie Strong, returns 10 starters from last year’s top ranked Big East passing defense, and is adding a former BCS Championship Game MVP in running back Michael Dyer.

So UConn doesn’t stand a chance against the far superior Louisville squad right? Well… it’s funny, people were saying that last year too, and look what happened?

Make no mistake, UConn’s Nov. 8 matchup against Louisville in East Hartford is going to be the team’s toughest test of the season. The game will be nationally televised on ESPN2, and coming off the team’s final bye week of the season, it could be a chance for the Huskies to make a major statement, one way or the other.

Can UConn do it? First lets look at what they’re up against.

How they’ve fared: Coming off a decisive win against an SEC opponent in the Sugar Bowl, Louisville is probably one of the most hyped up teams in the country. Last year the Cardinals finished with an 11-2 record, and this year they come in at No. 9 in the preseason polls.

As it turned out, the big win in the Sugar Bowl helped cover up what was nearly a season-killing hiccup late in the year that almost cost the Cardinals the Big East title. Coming into mid-November, Louisville was undefeated at 9-0 and looking like a possible dark horse candidate to crash the BCS Championship. Then they lost unexpectedly to Syracuse, but everyone figured they would rebound against a disappointing UConn team.

You know how the story goes. The UConn defense played its best game of the year, shutting out the Cardinal offense through three quarters before holding steady for one last stand in triple overtime, when Blidi Wreh-Wilson picked off Bridgewater in the endzone and set up the huge 23-20 victory.

Louisville obviously won the war, as they secured their ACC invite less than a week later and wound up topping Rutgers for the conference championship. Louisville also holds a 5-4 series lead all time, and if UConn wants to tie the series up before the Cardinals move on to greener pastures, they’re going to need another epic performance from the defense.

How they look: Pretty damn good. As I said before, the Cardinals are returning 16 starters from last year and come in as the favorite to win the conference and as a Top 10 team in the country.

Offensively, Louisville is going to do some serious damage in the passing game this year. Bridgewater should benefit from having each of his top three receivers from last year back for another go, and DaVante Parker in particular looks to be a source of concern for opposing defenses.

The big question for the Cardinals offensively is how Michael Dyer will fare in the running game. Dyer is obviously extremely talented, but he also hasn’t played in more than a year, and given the zero-tolerance contract he signed, it’s a legitimate question whether his personal issues could end up taking him off the field for good, like they did at Auburn and Arkansas State.

Defensively, Louisville returns 10 starters and shouldn’t skip a beat. Safety Hakeem Smith in particular could be a player to watch, Smith has earned All-Big East all three years of his college career and may be a contender for Defensive Player of the Year honors.

How they match up: Louisville’s offense is much stronger than UConn’s, so if the Huskies want to shoot down the Cardinals again, they are going to need to find a way to shut down Bridgewater like they did last year, because points are going to be tough to come by.

In general, Louisville is better on paper than UConn in most areas of the game. Luckily, they don’t play the games on paper, so we’ll just have to see how it goes.

What’s going to happen: I want to be optimistic about this, but going into the season with the information available now, it’s hard to see UConn upsetting Louisville again. Now, if the Huskies demonstrate marked improvement over the first two months of the season and Louisville falters, then who knows?