Louisville Cardinals (2000: 9-3)
The following team preview is provided by Blue Ribbon. For the nation's most comprehensive look at this and all Division I-A teams, be sure to order the 2001 Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook, on sale now at 1-800-775-2518.
Coach and programJohn L. Smith is a coach with a plain brown wrapper name, but his credentials and track record are snazzy. In his third year at Louisville, Smith, 52, directed the Cardinals to a 9-3 record, their first Conference USA title and an unprecedented third consecutive bowl game. The Cardinals are playing a very hard-to-ignore second banana on a campus, in a city and a state where basketball will always be king.
That won't be changing now that Rick Pitino has arrived on the scene. True to form, Pitino swept into Louisville during Kentucky Derby week with a high-priced colt running for the roses. One day leading up to the race, Smith showed up at the backside barns and was asked by a media type if he owned any horses. Smith quipped, "I own the pony that leads Pitino's horse to the gate.''
While that comment might be construed as a metaphor for the relative status of the two sports in Louisville, Smith's program stands tall on its own merits. His Cardinals boast an exciting offense. They averaged 35.3 points a game in 2000, scoring at least 32 points in the nine wins.
Junior quarterback Dave Ragone 's 27 touchdown passes are the leading figure for a returning Division I-A quarterback. Louisville's defense ranked fourth nationally against the run (79.9 yards per game) and 15th in total defense (304 yards per game).
Optimism in 2001 is high. Eight starters are back on offense, including conference offensive player-of-the-year Ragone. Safety Anthony Floyd, a Walter Camp All-American, heads up a defense with several key positions to fill but potential to be very good.
The biggest challenge for the Cardinals, though, may be getting used to life wearing a bull's eye on their backs.
"The hard part isn't getting to the top. It's staying there,'' Smith said. "Our players and coaches have to respond to the challenge that everybody in our league is gunning for us. It's our responsibility not to get complacent and continue to work hard.''
OffenseThis time a year ago as the post-Chris Redman Era began, Ragone (6-4, 240) was trying to overcome his utter lack of experience and beat out senior challenger Mike Watkins. Turned out it was no contest. Ragone all but made Louisville fans forget Redman, passing for 2,621 yards and 27 touchdowns.
Ragone has added 15 pounds to get up to 240 and wouldn't mind hitting 250. The extra bulk may come in handy; he was Louisville's second-leading rusher last year with 252 yards.
Ragone wasn't the only instant success on the Louisville offense. Senior Tony Stallings, who began his career at linebacker, emerged as the leading rusher with 819 yards. That's 818 more than he accumulated in 1999.
Arnold Jackson, who broke the Division I-A all-time receiving record with 300 career catches, is gone, but there's no doubt who will be the featured receiver in 2001. Senior Deion Branch actually managed to outshine Jackson last year and is back for his senior season. While Jackson was "held" to 63 catches and a career-low 7.4-yard average by frequent double coverages, Branch (5-10, 180) finished with 71 receptions for 1,106 yards, a 14.3-yard-per-catch average.
Tight end is in good shape. Ronnie Ghent (6-2, 230) made All-Conference USA first-team last year with 27 catches for 392 yards.
First-team All-C-USA center Jason Padget and second-team All-C-USA guard Joe O'Shaughnessy are both departed and the Cards spent considerable time in spring practice trying to figure out what to do about it. There is some good news to report. Rob Eble returns at tackle and the senior (6-6, 295) from Marietta, Ga., will likely move from the weak side, where he started 10 games, to the strong side slot.
Defense and special teamsNew defensive line coach Steve Stripling replaces Nick Holt and finds a good news-bad news proposition in his Louisville debut. The good news is the return of defensive ends Dewayne White and Michael Josiah, both of whom are established difference-makers. The bad news is the absence of departed tackles Donovan Arp and Derrick Kennedy.
White (6-2, 270), a sophomore, burst onto the scene as a freshman last fall and recorded 12 sacks while playing both tackle and end. The Marbury, Ala., product also had a team-high 22 quarterback hurries and was an all-conference freshman team selection.
Another Alabama product, Josiah (6-4, 235), a junior, managed to record his 13 sacks last year despite missing one game and playing only three snaps of another.
The question of who takes over inside wasn't finalized in the spring. Arp, a second-team All-C-USA pick, and Kennedy both leave big shoes to fill in a defense that ranked No. 4 nationally against the run.
Safety might be the strongest position on the football team with juniors Floyd and Curry Burns returning as established stars. On the other hand, cornerback might be the biggest question mark.
Josh Minkins (5-10, 175), a sophomore who is the only returning letterman at corner, pretty much nailed down one spot in the spring. Laroni Gallishaw (5-11, 200) is a redshirt freshman who just might win the other job.
Parker was the nation's No. 2 kickoff return man in 2000, averaging a whopping 28.9 yards per attempt. Parker has seven kickoff returns of 60-plus yards in his career.
Bottom lineThe Cardinals are knocking on the door of the Top 25 as Smith begins his fourth year.
The offense will be exciting, with Ragone set to expand on his banner debut season. He should be a better quarterback in his second season as a starter, but it'll be tough to improve on the big numbers he put up in 2000.
Defensively, there are some serious holes to fill. But this is a defense with some proven playmakers, namely ends White and Josiah and safeties Burns and Floyd.
If Louisville can once again produce turnovers in bunches, it should help cut opponents' scoring down from last year's 22.4 points a game.