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2014 Opponent Rating: Louisville

Why do we rank Louisville No. 7 among Notre Dame’s 12 opponents in 2014?

First-year Louisville head coach Bobby Petrino has evoked much controversy during his career, but he is a proven winner with an 83-30 career record in the collegiate ranks.

For starters, this program has become accustomed to success in recent years, including a 23-3 record the past two seasons. It finished 11-2 and No. 13 in 2012 after an upset of Florida in the Sugar Bowl. Last season’s 12-1 ledger, with a 36-9 rout of Miami in the Russell Athletic Bowl, resulted in a No. 15 finish.

This earned former Cardinals head coach Charlie Strong the high-profile job at the University of Texas, yet Louisville may have actually upgraded in coaching excellence. Back in Louisville is the Prodigal Son, Bobby Petrino, who is an impressive 83-30 (.735 winning percentage) and made his bones with the Cardinals with a 41-9 record from 2003-06.

His 2004 Louisville team finished 11-1 and No. 7 in the country, his 2006 crew was 12-1 and placed No. 6, and his 2011 Arkansas team was 11-2 with a No. 5 finish. The 2012 Razorbacks were considered a viable national title contender before a preseason off-the-field scandal involving Petrino and his mistress ousted him from his position and left him in temporary coaching purgatory at Western Kentucky in 2013.

On Jan. 9, Petrino signed a deal at Louisville that reportedly pays $24.5 million over seven years with a buyout of $10 million. Bygones are bygones, and Petrino vowed that he has a new perspective on life, including that his first mistake was leaving Louisville.

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Had quarterback Teddy Bridgewater returned for his final season of eligibility with the Cardinals, they might have been a preseason top-10 pick. Even without him, ESPN placed Louisville — which joins the Atlantic Coast Conference this season — 25th in its “Way Too Early” poll.

Petrino has an exceptional track record in developing quarterbacks, and the frontrunner in 2014 might be 6-5, 230-pound junior Will Gardner, who attempted only 12 passes last season while playing behind Bridgewater. Louisville joins Rice as the only two teams on the 2014 Irish schedule that don’t return its starting quarterback from 2013.

However, eight other starters return on offense for the Cardinals, including four linemen, playmaking wideout DeVante Parker (55 receptions, 16.1 yards per catch and 12 touchdowns in 2013), tight end Gerald Christian (28 catches that averaged 15.2 yards) and running back Dominique Brown (825 rushing yards and 5.1 yards per carry) — with Auburn transfer Michael Dyer also in the mix.

Five starters return for a unit that finished No. 1 nationally in total defense (251.5 yards allowed per game) and rushing defense (80.7 yards surrendered per contest), and No. 2 in scoring defense (12.2 points yielded per outing). The cornerback duo of Charles Gaines and Terell Floyd might rank among the best nationally after combining for nine interceptions and 29 passes broken up in 2013. The front needs rebuilding, but returning end Lorenzo Mauldin did record 9.5 sacks last season.

Notable Fact
No longer just “a basketball school,” Louisville has become a player in football, too, and has 29 players from the state of Florida on its spring roster to prove it. Strong, a former defensive coordinator at the University of Florida, built a pipeline into the Sunshine State that has reaped benefits in the team’s overall growth.

The Cardinals will transition from a defensive-minded coach in Strong to one in Petrino whose forte is offense, and they will be doing it in a new, tougher league after one season in the American Athletic Conference. Nevertheless, with their combination of recent success, a strong nucleus of talent on both sides of the ball and Petrino’s history as a winner, the Cardinals should remain competitive in years to come — if Petrino is true to his word that he won’t be seeking greener pastures.

Louisville also will have an extra week to prepare for Notre Dame because it will have a bye week after its Nov. 8 game at Boston College. That in itself makes this “upset special” timber in the first-ever meeting between the two schools in football.

Tomorrow: The sixth-toughest opponent, on paper — one of our four teams that joins Northwestern, Navy and Louisville with “upset special” potential.

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