Path To The Playoff: Louisville

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The 2006 Louisville Cardinals were a field goal against Rutgers away from probably playing Ohio State for the national championship – and considering those Buckeyes came into the BCS title game against Florida flat, UofL might have had an honest shot at taking the crystal football.

Instead, those Cardinals went 12-1 finishing up with an Orange Bowl win, but had there been a playoff, they might have had a reasonable shot at getting into the final four.

Fast forward to the 2015 season, and head coach Bobby Petrino is building back up the Cardinals again into a powerhouse. It’s just a question of when it all comes together, not if.

Considering all the emphasis by the playoff committee on winning conference championships, can Louisville somehow win the ACC title and sneak its way into the fun? Is the program close to being good enough to beat the Florida States and Clemsons of the world?

Consider this. In Petrino’s first year at Louisville in 2003, his team went 9-4. In his second tour of duty with the program, he restarted things with a 9-4 2014 season. How did he do in 2004? He went 11-1 and won the Conference USA title.

It took him three years to make Arkansas rock, but he had a longer road to climb – and the ACC Atlantic isn’t the SEC West.

Is it possible to catch lightning in a bottle? Can Petrino put together the pieces fast enough to go on just enough of a run to get into the fun? It’s going to be a fight, but the Path to the Playoff is there.

Step One: Settle on a quarterback

Five players threw a pass for Louisville last season. One throw came from the punter, but the coaching staff was never quite able to get into a groove with any one quarterback option. Is it really going to be the Reggie Bonnafon show? Is Will Gardner going to be the best option once he returns from this torn ACL? Is the door open for another option to rise up and take the job? There’s no time to ease into the season with a brutal first half to deal with. The quarterback has to be terrific to …

Step Two: Get the offense rolling again

Where was the consistent running game? Brandon Radcliff came up with a great sophomore season. Michael Dyer had his moments, Dominique Brown was okay, and quarterback Reggie Bonnafon added some punch to the mix, but the ground attack still wasn’t anything special. It got stronger as the season rolled on, but it was shut down cold by Kentucky and Georgia over the final two games. The O line needs some rebuilding, but it’s going to need to rock right away for the offense to balance out a bit. Meanwhile …

Step Three: Get the transfers rolling right away

Even with the question mark at quarterback, and despite an iffy line and the loss of star receiver DeVante Paker, the passing attack should be terrific thanks to the new guys. James Quick is a rising star, and he’ll be helped by the addition of former UAB Blazer Jamari Staples and Texas A&M’s Ja’Quay Savage. Considering five of the top six receivers from last year are gone, the more the Cardinal offense can spread the passes around, the better.

Defensively, TCU’s Devonte Fields and former Georgia defensive backs Josh Harvey-Clemons and Shaq Wiggins will have to play big roles right out of the gate, especially because …

Step Four: The run D has to rock

Terrific for the most part throughout last season, Louisville allowed just one touchdown run over the first eight games. The score came from Virginia, who also had the first 100-yard rushing day of anyone in the first seven games. But the run defense started to struggle late in the year, mostly because that’s when the schedule got tougher, allowing 100 yards or more in five of the final six games, and 99 to Notre Dame the other. Throw in the 11 touchdowns allowed over the final five games, and it was a rocky run, closed out with a 292-yard, three touchdown stampeding from Georgia in the bowl loss. There’s no time to jell up front considering …

Step Five: Beat Auburn in Atlanta

It’s certainly not the end of the world if Louisville loses to Auburn – the Cardinals will almost certainly get into the playoff if they run the table – but a win on SEC soil would make a gigantic splash. Despite being just 475 miles apart, the two programs have only played once – a 16-3 Auburn win in 1974. This time around, Auburn will want to use this game as a national announcement that it’s going to be a major factor in 2015, and Louisville wants it to set the tone that the program is ready to be a true player. If nothing else, a win would provide a cushion if and when the Cardinals lose in ACC play.

Step Six: Own Papa John’s Cardinal

Out of the four losses last season, the only one at home came against Florida State, meaning 2006 was the last time the Cardinals got through a season unblemished at home. Getting by Samford and Syracuse shouldn’t be a problem, but Clemson will be one of the biggest barriers every Atlantic team has to get through, and Boston College and Virginia will be dangerous. Considering Pitt and Kentucky are on the road, and the showdown against Florida State is in Tallahassee, forget about getting to the playoff without going 6-0 at home.

Step Seven: Don’t overlook NC State

There’s a chance NC State could be every bit as dangerous as anyone in the Atlantic this season. It’s the first true road game of the season, and it comes just before the week off. Even more than that, Louisville – especially if it beats Auburn and Clemson – can’t be looking ahead to Florida State. The Wolfpack and Cardinals have played just four times, with Louisville winning three of them including last year in the first year in ACC life. Of course …

Step Eight: Win the ACC championship

The Cardinals have to win the Atlantic, and that means – at the very least – winning two of the three key games against Clemson, NC State and Florida State, with the emphasis being on getting by the Tigers and Seminoles. It’s going to take a special season, and it’s going to take everything coming together despite a slew of holes, but there’s talent. There’s not enough in the bag to get through unscathed, but 12-1 with an ACC title would almost certainly get the job done.

Is It Going To Happen?: It’s going to take too many magical things to fall into place for the Cardinals to make it happen this year – but the needle is pointing up. This should be a stronger season overall, and double-digit wins are possible, but winning the ACC title is too lofty in an improved year for the conference, much less than get into the playoff.