Strong's first schedule presents opportunity

Louisville coach Charlie Strong will take a crack at ending Louisville's three-year bowl drought in 2010 against a schedule that features nine teams who went bowling in 2009. While the Cardinals' 2010 schedule appears tough, it's also workable with seven home games.

The Louisville football program hasn't had a winning season since 2006. That fact made for a long three years under former coach Steve Kragthorpe, who posted a 15-21 record at UofL.

Next season, new coach Charlie Strong will take a crack at ending Louisville's three-year bowl drought against a schedule that features nine teams who went bowling in 2009. While the Cardinals' 2010 schedule appears tough, it's also workable with seven home games.

"We have seven home games, which should help our young football team, including four league games at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium," Strong said.

Since arriving at Louisville, Strong has rekindled fan enthusiasm by hiring an outstanding coaching staff and landing one of the best recruiting classes in the Big East. But it remains unseen what impact Strong's leadership will have on the field, though I suspect it will be significant and positive.

Louisville opens spring practice March 24 and Strong will begin installing his new offensive and defensive systems. Louisville's talent-level has clearly declined since winning the Orange Bowl and there's a lack of quality, experienced depth at several key positions.

Strong likely will rely next season on several members of his first recruiting class to help at quarterback, wide receiver, defensive line and linebacker. Players like Dominique Brown, Michaelee Harris, Josh Bellamy, B.J. Butler, Randy Salmon and Preston Brown could be key players when Kentucky visits newly expanded PJCS for the season opener September 4.

Senior RB Bilal Powell hopes to end his career in a bowl.
That contest is critically important for Strong and the Cardinals. Louisville hasn't beaten their in-state rival since Bobby Petrino left for the NFL, dropping three straight against UK with Kragthorpe in command. Next season, both programs will break in new coaches – Joker Philips replaced Rich Brooks after the season – who are looking to win the on-field war and get the upper-hand for the state's top recruits.

Louisville will open the 2010 campaign with five straight non-conference games. Three of those games are at home and one is at Arkansas State. If the Cardinals can find a way to knock off UK in the first game – they should have defeated the Wildcats last year in Lexington – it's plausible they could enter conference play with a 4-1 record, as Eastern Kentucky, Arkansas State and Memphis appear winnable. A trip to Oregon State in September appears a daunting challenge for a young team with a new coach.

Here's the good news for Louisville once Big East play begins - they'll play four of seven conference games at home, including three of the league's best teams: Cincinnati, West Virginia and South Florida. The bad news is that Louisville hasn't had much success in the Big East the last two years, going just 2-12 in Kragthorpe's final two seasons.

Strong will get a good gauge of where his program stacks up in the Big East opener Oct. 15 against two-time defending league champion Cincinnati. Though the Bearcats soundly defeated Louisville last season, UC also will be breaking in a new coach – Butch Jones replaces Brian Kelly, who is now the coach at Notre Dame. This game could provide solid evidence about the direction these two programs are headed under new management.

If Strong hopes to return UofL to a bowl game in his first season, he's going to have to figure out a way to beat teams like Connecticut, Syracuse and South Florida. Louisville played UConn tough under Steve Kragthorpe but could never find a way to beat the Huskies. The Cardinals played USF tough last year and the series has always gone to the home team. Louisville plays South Florida, who also has a new coach after Skip Holtz replaced Jim Leavitt, at PJCS in November.

If Louisville can win against those three, they'd probably only have to secure one win against the other four league teams – Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, West Virginia and Rutgers – to get back into the bowl picture.

That was a problem for Kragthorpe, who steadily lost ground against the Big East's top football programs. Kragthorpe notched wins over Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Rutgers his first season, then went a combined 0-6 against that group the past two years. Louisville hasn't beaten West Virginia since 2006. Finding a win against that foursome next season won't be easy, though UofL does get Cincinnati and West Virginia at home.

If you're trying to find seven wins on the schedule, the most winnable games on paper are Eastern Kentucky, Arkansas State, Memphis, Connecticut and Syracuse. If Louisville can secure wins in those five games, home games against Kentucky, Cincinnati, South Florida and West Virginia will determine Louisville's bowl fate.

Clearly, Strong has a major rebuilding job on his hands. He's not only playing catchup against Kentucky in-state, but with most of the Big East, too. Still, Louisville's 2010 schedule presents an opportunity for the Cardinals to win enough games to get back into a bowl game for the first time since 2006.

That would be a major accomplishment in Charlie Strong's first season.

Times for most games will be made available as the season gets closer.

2010 Schedule

Sept. 4 - Kentucky
Sept. 11 - Eastern Kentucky
Sept. 18 - at Oregon State
Sept. 25 - OPEN
Oct. 2 - at Arkansas State
Oct. 9 - Memphis
Oct. 15 - Cincinnati
Oct. 23 - Connecticut
Oct. 30 - at Pittsburgh
Nov. 6 - at Syracuse
Nov. 13 - South Florida
Nov. 20 - West Virginia
Nov. 26 - at Rutgers

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