Louisville Cardinals (9-4 in 2014)
Leading returning rusher: Brandon Radcliffe (737 yards, 12 TD’s)
Leading returning passer: Will Gardner (1,669 yards, 12 TD’s)
Leading returning receiver: James Quick (566 yards, three TD’s)
Leading returning tackler: Keith Kelsey (89 tackles)
When Louisville Is On Offense
The question mark that still remains for the Cardinals is who will play quarterback and how many guys will Coach Bobby Petrino play at the position? Will Gardner, Reggie Bonnafon and Kyle Bolin all got playing time last season and could all play this weekend against Auburn as could true freshman Lamar Jackson. With Gardner and Bolin more pocket passers with Bonnafon and Jackson more athletic, Auburn’s coaches and players will have to keep a close eye on who is in the game for Louisville with every snap.
There is no doubt the guy the Cardinals will turn to in the running game and that is Brandon Radcliffe. Back after playing in all 13 games a season ago, the 5-9, 214 Radcliffe ran for 737 yards on 144 carries and scored 12 touchdowns. Behind him L.J. Scott (6-0, 226) should be the next guy to get touches.
The strength of Louisville’s offense is at the wide receiver position and that’s even with the loss of first round NFL Draft choice DeVante Parker. Leading the way is 6-1, 191 James Quick. The local product caught 36 passes for 566 yards a year ago with three touchdowns, but should see those numbers increase this season. UAB transfer Jamari Staples (6-4, 196) and former Auburn signee and Texas A&M receiver Jaquay (Williams) Savage rounds out a big and physical starting group. At 6-3, 214, Savage is a natural receiver that has had a strong fall camp.
Up front is where the potential problems lie for Louisville as every offensive line position along with tight end has the chance to see multiple players in action on Saturday. With as many as 11 offensive linemen having the real possibility to play the Cardinals could have some problems matching up against what should be an athletic Auburn defensive front.
When Louisville Is On Defense
The Cardinals will bring one of the best front seven groups to the Georgia Dome that Auburn will see all season. Leading the charge is big end Sheldon Rankins. A force in the 3-4 scheme for Louisville, the 6-2, 303 Rankins made 53 tackles a year ago with eight sacks and 13 ½ tackles for a loss. Alongside him are big space eater DeAngelo Brown (6-0, 308) and Pio Vatuvei (6-2, 296).
While the front three is strong the linebacker group may be the best Auburn sees this season with James Burgess (6-0, 230), Keith Kelsey (6-1, 236) and Keith Brown (6-1, 237) back after totaling 178 tackles a season ago. Rounding out the group is perhaps the single biggest addition for the Cardinals, former TCU standout Devonte Fields (6-4, 245).
The Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year in 2012 as a true freshman, Fields totaled 53 tackles with 10 ½ sacks and 18 ½ tackles for losses before playing in just three games the following year before a foot injury ended his season early. Dismissed from TCU because of an off-the-field incident when he allegedly assaulted an ex-girlfriend, Fields played junior college ball last year and should be a huge boost for an already strong defense.
Transfers abound in the secondary as well with former Georgia starters Josh Harvey-Clemons (6-5, 230) and Shaq Wiggins (5-10, 170) are both expected to start for the Cardinals on Saturday along with Chucky Williams (6-0, 204) and either Trumaine Washington (5-10, 181) or Duke Culver (6-0, 186).
Another strength of the team is on special teams where kicker John Wallace (6-0, 190) returns after connecting on 15-19 field goals and all 50 extra-points a year ago. A backup last season, punter Josh Appleby averaged 42.3 yards on six attempts and is the starter heading into Saturday.
Keys To Victory
For Auburn there are several keys, but the first is to put the ball in the hands of one of the four quarterbacks and make the young offensive line take on the likes of Carl Lawson, DaVonte Lambert and Montravius Adams in obvious passing situations. Forcing Louisville to be one-dimensional is a must if the Tigers want to start out the 2015 season on a good foot defensively.
On the other side of the ball Auburn has to be able to run it effectively against a Louisville defense that allowed just 109.9 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground a season ago. The positive for the Tigers is that the last time out the Cardinals allowed 305 yards on the ground to the Georgia Bulldogs.
Allowing 151 to Kentucky as well, the Louisville defense feasted on less physical teams last year and that’s something to watch Saturday. If the Tigers can get the ground game going early it would only open up the pass even more for Jeremy Johnson and allow the offense the chance to really click coming out of the gate in a new season.