Our ranking: No. 11 LOUISVILLE
Coach: Bobby Petrino (9-4, entering the fourth season; 26-13 overall)
2016 record: 9-4, 7-1 in Atlantic Coast Conference, finished tied for first in Atlantic Division
Look back: Louisville QB Lamar Jackson shredded opposing defenses for more than 3,500 yards through the air and 1,500 yards on the ground en route to winning the Heisman Trophy.
The bad news for other schools in the ACC and around the country is Jackson returns for a junior season with some teammates hungry to prove they can overcome their poor end to an exciting season.
After thrashing Florida State 63-20 at home, Louisville was two yards away from the first-down marker with 40 seconds left at Clemson, losing to the Tigers and conceding the ACC’s Atlantic Division crown.
After a 9-1 start, the Cardinals succumbed to the pressure of being on the cusp College Football Playoff rankings in a blowout loss at Houston. Louisville later lost to in-state rival Kentucky to close the regular season and LSU in an Orlando bowl.
Offensive starters lost: 8
Defensive starters returning: 9
Defensive starters lost: 4
Key losses: WR James Quick, TE Cole Hikutini, RB Brandon Radcliff, DB Josh Harvey-Clemons, WR Jamari Staples, TE Keith Towbridge, OL Khalil Hunter, LB Devonte Fields, DT DeAngelo Brown, LB Keith Kelsey.
Top returnees: QB Lamar Jackson, RB Reggie Bonnafon, CB Jaire Alexander, LB James Hearns, CB Trumaine Washington, LB Trevon Young, WR Jaylen Smith, OL Geron Christian, OL Lukayus McNeil, DL Drew Bailey, DL De’Asian Richardson, LB Stacy Thomas, DB Chucky Williams, DB Zykeisis Cannon.
Strengths: Sports Illustrated rated two athletes better than Jackson, while ESPN considered five players to be better than the returning Heisman Trophy winner.
Louisville’s biggest strength this season will be its underestimated quarterback, who took the sport by storm with his offensive prowess. Jackson may be short a few weapons, but Louisville has several playmakers capable of helping him continue his offensive tear from a season ago.
The Cardinals return nine starters on defense, also looking to prove the end of last season was a fluke.
Weaknesses: While Jackson made remarkable plays last season, he will need significant improvement from his teammates on the offensive line. Jackson was sacked 47 times last season, most in the ACC.
Wide receivers James Quick and Jamari Staples and tight end Cole Hikutini may be gone, but the Cardinals expect junior receivers Jaylen Smith, Devante Peete, Trevon Matthew and Seth Dawkins to pick up the slack.
Outlook: Louisville may have been voted third to finish in the ACC Atlantic Division behind Florida State and Clemson, and begin the season nearly the lower end of the Top 20 teams in the country. But the Cardinals will use every slight they incur to begin the season with a chip on their shoulder.
Matchups against Purdue in Indianapolis, at North Carolina and at home against Clemson will test Louisville early, while an October contest at Florida State could determine which team will play for an ACC title later this season.
The Cardinals have a favorable schedule and one of the best players in the nation leading their offense. They will likely contend for an ACC crown and a College Football Playoff semifinal bid.