By Rick Bozich
WDRB Sports

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Bulletin board material abounds for the University of Louisville football team as the 2018 season opens.
 

The Cardinals were listed as a 25 1/2 point underdog against No. 1 Alabama since May 23, and the number has not budged.

Voters in the Atlantic Coast Conference media poll picked Louisville to finish fifth in the Atlantic Division.

Don’t blame the media. Voters in the USA Today coaches’ pre-season poll ranked Louisville No. 48 (behind Kentucky, Boston College, North Carolina State, Duke and Fresno State).

File that as Louisville’s lowest ranking in the coaches’ pre-season poll since 2011, when Charlie Strong’s second U of L team failed to earn any votes before delivering a 7-6 season.

“Our projections as a team, our expectations, aren’t down at all,” U of L coach Bobby Petrino said Thursday. Defensive back Dee Smith dismissed the preseason noise with a shake of his head.

What’s going on?

Here are the three primary questions as Louisville opens its training camp:

1. Is there life after Lamar Jackson?

Petrino has been as consistently upbeat about this team as he has been since returning to Louisville in 2014.

“I like this team. I’ve said that many times,” Petrino said Thursday on the eve of the team’s opening practices Friday.

He did not have to say that he believes the offense will be better than the offense the Cards played last season with its Heisman Trophy winner. Downplaying expectations without Jackson and his 400 yards per game would be the pour-mouthing path most coaches would take.

He did not have to say this is the best conditioned team that he has coached with the smallest percentage of body fat. All he had to say was that the Cardinals were well-conditioned.

Nope.

“We had our conditioning tests last Friday, and our guys really blew it out of the water,” Petrino said.

The coach remains bullish on his offense and his team’s speed. He’s not the only one who likes his receivers. He’s more confident in his backs than the average onlooker. He said he is comfortable with a nine-player rotation on the offensive line.

The coach said that he will adjust his playbook to his personnel, because the time has come for Jawon Pass to replace Jackson and run this team.

“Excited about Jawon,” Petrino said. “It’s his time. He’s been here learning and putting effort in to get it right, so I’m expecting him to do real well. He’s talented.”

2.  Is there life after Peter Sirmon?

After ranking second, third and third in total defense over its first three seasons in the Atlantic Coast Conference, Louisville tanked to 10th in the league in total defense and scoring defense last season.

The Cardinals were gashed for more than 388 yards per game, their worst per-game average since Steve Kragthorpe’s first team allowed nearly 417 per game in 2007. Any Kragthorpe comparisons come with an automatic flashing light.

Exit Sirmon after one uninspiring season as the defensive coordinator. Enter Brian VanGorder, who accepted the challenge of fixing the issues with five returning starters, one on the defensive front.

“My input is going to be on depth and getting players in the proper position and making sure we’re multiple enough to try and know what would an offense this of this and what would an offense think of that,” Petrino said.

“The biggest key to offense, defense, special teams is getting guys in the right spots, putting people in position where they can excel and succeed."

Stopping the run is where life begins in college football. Louisville allowed 24 rushing touchdowns last season, 19 more than Clemson and nine more than North Carolina State.

The seeds of skepticism about this team’s ability to win eight or more games begins on the defensive front.

3.  Is there enough gusto to win The Swing Games?

The Cardinals face two games the wise guys expect them to lose (Alabama and Clemson) and two other that they’d better not lose (Indiana State and Western Kentucky).

They’ll need to win six of the remaining eight to exceed the 7 1/2 win total projected for this group in Las Vegas.

Playing only four true road games helps. So does getting Florida State, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest at home.

“Hopefully (the sour prediction) upsets us and motivates us, and we work extremely hard,” Petrino said. “But you’ve got to go out on the field and prove it.

“It’s that way every year, whether you’re ranked one or nobody talks about you.”

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