The Louisville Cardinals football program found themselves on the national stage the last two seasons. A generational talent behind center will do that to any college football team.
Quarterback Lamar Jackson did it all for the Cardinals. He amassed 5,000 total yards in back-to-back seasons and accounted for 96 touchdowns in the two seasons combined. Both years ended with Heisman Trophy nominations, and Jackson took home the award in 2016.
But Jackson is gone. He’s beginning his career with the Baltimore Ravens after going No. 32 overall in the first round. And many college football analysts expect Louisville to see a significant drop off this season without him.
However, that assumption is probably unfair to coach Bobby Petrino, who has yet to have a season with less than 8 wins during his eight years with the Cardinals.
Here are three games that could go a long way to determining if Louisville and Petrino continue that impressive streak and win eight games again in 2018:
Sept. 1: Louisville vs. Alabama, TBD
The Cardinals kick off the season with the biggest test possible – a date with the Crimson Tide in Orlando. As Florida State learned last September, even on the first weekend of the season, it’s not fun facing Nick Saban and the Tide.
Of course, this one won’t be hyped as the game of the year or a championship preview as the Alabama-Florida State matchup was last year in Atlanta. Actually, most will likely predict a blowout.
And unfortunately with Jackson leaving for the NFL early, fans don’t even get the treat of seeing the Crimson Tide defense square off with the dynamic quarterback. But if somehow Louisville could keep this Week 1 contest close or pull off an upset victory, it would set a great tone for the season.
Sept. 29: Louisville vs. Florida State, TBD
The Cardinals have only been in the ACC since 2014, but that’s been just enough time to develop a rivalry with Florida State. Louisville owns just a 4-14 all-time record in this series, but they’ve beaten the Seminoles each of the last two years.
That includes a 63-20 thrashing at Louisville in September 2016. It was one of the most embarrassing losses in Florida State program history, who at the time was ranked No. 2 in the country.
Willie Taggart and Florida State will have already faced Virginia Tech by the time these two teams are ready to roll, but this one will be important for both programs in the ACC Atlantic division race.
Nov. 3: Louisville at Clemson, TBD
While the Cardinals have managed some success against Florida State, they haven’t experienced any versus Clemson. In the first three meetings between these two programs from 2014-16, the Tigers won by one possession, including by six in 2016.
Jackson drove the Cardinals inside the Tigers 10-yard line in the final minute of that game, but that’s where the drive stalled. Had Louisville been able to finish that drive, they would have won the Atlantic Division, gone to the ACC Championship Game and maybe went to the College Football Playoffs instead of the Tigers.
After being so close, many thought 2017 would be the year Louisville would finally slayed the dragon and beat Clemson. The Tigers had to go into Louisville last season, and Jackson was expected to outplay new Clemson starting quarterback Kelly Bryant.
But that didn’t happen. Clemson won 47-21, which is the most lopsided score in this young series, and once again earned a spot in the College Football Playoffs.
Little will probably be expected from Louisville in this year’s matchup with Clemson, but if the Cardinals want to take the next step and win the ACC, they must defeat the Tigers.
Honorable Mention – Oct. 13: Louisville at Boston College, TBD
This game could arguably become more essential than the matchups with Alabama or Clemson. Louisville would obviously love to beat either of those teams, but let’s assume for a minute that both are losses. In that case, the Cardinals are likely competing with Florida State for second place in the Atlantic.
But don’t sleep on Boston College. The Eagles beat Louisville last season, and this year, the Cardinals will travel to Chestnut Hill. And barring a big upset, this one might be a must-win in order for Louisville to reach eight wins.