When: Sept. 2
Where: Papa John's Cardinal Stadium
Coach: Charlie Strong starts his third year as the Cardinals coach after going 7-6 each of his first two seasons. The former Florida defensive coordinator has been a definite step up from predecessor Steve Krag-thorpe, where slippage had grown deep roots, and appears to have turned the page completely from that dark three-year period. He's rallied the U of L fan base, that's for sure. Never mind those rumors that he will end up as Arkansas' next head coach, continuing a line of former Louisville head coaches who take over things in Fayetteville. No need to worry about that until season's end.
Offense: Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater showed last year why he was a highly regarded recruit, signing on with U of L after Randy Shannon was shown the door at Miami. Bridgewater is mobile, accurate and has an excellent cast of young receivers in DeVante Parker, Eli Rogers and Michaelee Harris. What Louisville needs is better pass protection and a stronger running game. The Cards were 93rd nationally in running the football last season. Shawn Watson will be in his first full year as offensive coordinator after Strong pushed out his predecessor, Mike Sanford, in a messy coup that played out during the season.
Defense: Junior strong safety Hakeem Smith is probably the best player on the squad, a first-team All-Big East selection last year that could show up on some All-America rosters. Coordinator Vance Bedford must replace linebacker Dexter Heyman, but has some experience back on his defensive line. The Cards did go from giving up 312 yards per game in 2010 to 328 in 2011. Louisville's run defense was pretty good last year, giving up just 101 yards per game and just 3 yards per carry.
Overall: Strong has 15 returning starters, including the Big East's best quarterback in Bridgewater, so little wonder the Cards are picked to fight with South Florida for the Big East title.
Series with UK: Kentucky had won four straight before losing to the 'Ville 24-17 last year at Commonwealth Stadium. Down 24-10, the Cats pulled to within a touchdown with 4:56 remaining, then drove inside the U of L 20-yard line on the final possession. But after DeMarco Robinson fumbled backward on a key third down — he had first-down yardage — Morgan Newton missed on a pass to LaRod King on fourth-and-6, handing the ball and the win to Louisville.
Schedule: The Kentucky game is important, no doubt, but U of L's key stretch will be the Oct. 13-Oct. 20 Saturday games at Pittsburgh and then back home against USF.
Mood of the program: Upbeat. Louisville fans expect a win over the Cats on Sunday, Sept. 2, then a continued rise back to the standards of the John L. Smith and Bobby Petrino days. All Strong has to do is make it happen.
John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com