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Louisville Is College Football's No-Longer-Secret National Title Hopeful

A team that was lurking under the radar before the season has now been found out. Can Louisville now take the next step and become national title contenders?

by Mike Piellucci
Sep 16 2016, 2:40pm

Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Louisville is a Frankenstein team, coached by a monster.

The roster is a quick-burning amalgamation of Charlie Strong's upperclassmen, Bobby Petrino's up-and-comers and a passel of transfers banished from other schools. It's captained by Petrino, more or less universally regarded as an ogre, but an extremely competent one, the kind who is liable to club anyone that wanders into its path without their wits about them. The Cardinals are fast, balanced, experienced, explosive.

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And on Saturday, Florida State should be very, very afraid of wandering into their domain.

This isn't a terribly controversial opinion, mostly because of what happened last week. First, in Friday's demolition of Syracuse, Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson uncorked one of the most dominant single-game performances in college football history: 411 passing yards on 20-of-39 attempts, 199 rushing yards on 21 carries, five total touchdowns. The rapidly metastasizing Mike Vick comparisons are still a tad much, but 610 yards – the most ever by one player in an ACC game – is a jarring sign that, just two games into his sophomore season, Jackson is ascending into the ranks of the game's most feared playmakers.

Then, on Saturday, FSU sophomore safety Derwin James tore his meniscus. He could miss up to two months. James is to the Seminoles defense what Jackson is to the Cardinals' offense, both the glue that holds the unit together and the furnace that melts opposing game plans. Already, he may be the best player on a unit dripping with talent, but his loss is even more significant given this:

And there you have it: a formula for tenth-ranked Louisville to not only upset FSU, but defeat them in a way that would make the Cardinals a legitimate national title contender. Even before Jackson's injury, however, Louisville's potential was apparent.

Louisville went 8-5 in 2015, but three of those losses came in the first three weeks of the season – well before Jackson emerged as the solution under center – and a fourth happened on the road at FSU. That obscured what happened next. The Cardinals closed out the season with six wins in seven games, and have brought back damn near everyone from the team that did it: Jackson, its top three running backs, five offensive linemen who started at least four games, four of the top six defensive linemen, four of the top six linebackers, six of the top seven defensive backs and literally every single person who caught a pass in 2015.

Jackson's electricity is augmented by depth on offense, with ten returnees who recorded double-digit receptions and a pair of tailbacks who averaged six yards per carry in 2015. Veterans flank All-American types like edge rusher Devonte Fields (22.5 tackles for loss in 2015) and colossal safety Josh Harvey-Clemons throughout the defense –bank vault-sized nose tackle DeAngelo Brown, tackling machine Keith Kelsey, hybrid defender James Hearns, safety Chucky Williams, and corners Trumaine Washington and Shaq Wiggins.

It took half-a-dozen coaching regimes to cobble the whole thing together. Strong assembled the foundation of upperclassmen: Brown, Kelsey, Hearns, Washington, 2015 leading rusher Brandon Radcliff and 2015 leading receiver James Quick. Petrino has added Jackson, receivers Jaylen Smith and Traveon Samuel and corner Jaire Alexander. Then there are the exiles. Fields came from TCU by way of junior college after the Horned Frogs dismissed him for allegedly assaulting his girlfriend. Harvey-Clemons and Wiggins arrived in tandem from Georgia, where the former had been booted from the team and the latter had mostly worn out his welcome. This year's leading receiver, Jamari Samples, was taken in after UAB discontinued its program and he needed a place to play.

Pictured: A not-especially-great human who is very, very good at his job. Photo by Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports.

Petrino, to his credit, has long sorted out any disarray. Whatever his failings as a human, he is an offensive savant who, as SB Nation's Bill Connelly notes rather comprehensively, reliably salvages whatever program will have him and does so in style. There are still holes, if you search for them. Todd Grantham's kamikaze defense can bleed big plays, and it's still too soon to tell whether the Cardinals have a defensive lineman who can come close to approximating the departed Sheldon Rankins. Jackson is a meteor shower, one who rains yards in spectacular ways, but is equally inefficient. At the risk of picking on a 610-yard game, Jackson barely completing 50 percent of his passes against Syracuse bears monitoring heading into the FSU and Clemson games, which will take place just two weeks apart from each other.

These flaws are hardly crippling, however, and in a year when the ACC is being championed as resurgent, Louisville is the one team with enough upward mobility to join the Seminoles or Tigers in its ruling class. Miami lacks the Cardinals' vertical passing game; North Carolina can't match its defensive playmakers. Nathan Peterman is more a caretaker than a game-breaker for Pitt, while Duke and NC State have already tripped over inferior competition. Virginia Tech is still assimilating to new coach Justin Fuente.

Louisville can leapfrog all of those teams, and this weekend will mostly determine if the Cardinals will. A victory at Clemson – should the Tigers remain undefeated – would produce a similar result. Petrino's creation is lurching toward something great and Jackson's quicksilver speed has given notice that they might arrive there sooner than many expected. It is imperfect, just like the coach himself, but no one will remember that if it gets there. Machines get praised when they do their job. On Saturday night, Louisville's could rattle and hum its way into a promotion.

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