Saturday afternoon in front of the largest home crowd in Louisville football history, Strong, the former defensive coordinator at Florida, will usher in a new era at UofL when he coaches his first game against rival Kentucky at newly expanded PJCS.
Though this will be his first game as a college head coach, Strong is more than ready for the job. As an assistant the past 27 years, Strong has proven he deserves this shot to rebuild a Louisville program that fell on hard times the past three years under former coach Steve Kragthorpe. Owner of two BCS national championship rings while defensive coordinator at Florida, Strong now gets his opportunity to call the shots.
Strong takes over a program that finished 4-8 last season and hasn't been to a bowl game since Bobby Petrino's final shining moment in the 2007 Orange Bowl. It's been three long years for Cardinal fans, who watched as Kragthorpe dismantled a program that finished No. 6 nationally twice during his predecessor's tenure. Oh, and Strong also inherits a team that hasn't beaten Kentucky the past three years.
"My biggest concern is they beat us the last three years, so they should have a lot of confidence because of what has happened in the past and we are one of those teams still searching for an identity of who we are right now," Strong said.
While Louisville slid into mediocrity under Kragthorpe, Kentucky took advantage. Not only have the Wildcats beaten the Cardinals three straight, they've also appeared in four straight bowl games. That's one of the major reasons Strong was hired to replace Kragthorpe after last season.
"Kentucky has the advantage of being to four straight bowl games and they have not had consecutive losing seasons," Strong said. "What these players have heard are you are not really good, you cannot do this; and it is a confidence thing for them and we have nothing to show for it, whereas they (Kentucky) have something to show for it."
What will it take for Louisville to regain its former swagger?
"Once we get it going and win a few games, the confidence will come back," said Strong.
A win over Kentucky, who enters as the betting favorite, would give Strong's program an immediate confidence boost.
"I told the guys to play with passion and energy, along with playing every play and we will see what happens," Strong said. "However, we are playing a really outstanding football team."
Strong has expressed concerns about his football team leading up to the game. He's worried about his defense, for one. He's also concerned that his team lacks leadership – and an identity.
"I compare this football team to my first year at South Carolina in 1999," said Strong. "We were a bad football team, but then as the season went, we kind of got better each game. Then, the next two years we go win the Outback Bowl."
That South Carolina team, in which Strong served as defensive coordinator in Lou Holtz' first season with the Gamecocks, didn't win a game. The next two seasons, South Carolina bounced back to go 17-7, playing in back-to-back Outback Bowl games.
Hopefully, Strong's first Louisville season isn't as tough as Holtz' first at South Carolina. Still, his first game at UofL won't be easy, even though first-year Kentucky coach Joker Phillips is replacing several key players on both sides of the football.
"We are going to play a really good Kentucky team, a team that has been to four straight bowl games and a team that is a really solid football team," Strong said.
Strong's primary concern is figuring out a way to slow down Kentucky's do-it-all threat Randall Cobb. Cobb caught 6 passes for 71 yards in a 31-27 win over Louisville last season, including the game-winning touchdown in the final minutes of action. But Cobb isn't just a receiving threat. The Wildcats also direct snap to Cobb, and he's a threat to make plays in the running game, as well.
"Cobb is a guy who makes their team go," Strong said. "He is the nucleus of their football team, and they can play him in a lot of different positions to get the ball into his hands. They get into the Wildcat formation and he is hard to deal with in that position because he may not have big plays, but he keeps the chains moving. He can go get a first down for them, can catch a pass and run through people."
Strong added that,"It is going to be critical to stay square and stay in our gaps when they go into the [Wildcat] formation," with Cobb.
Strong also is concerned about UK running back Derrick Locke, who rushed for 72 yards and a one touchdown against the Cards last season, and caught four passes for 47 yards. Locke also returned a kick-off 100 yards for a score.
"Locke is a really outstanding player who has a lot of speed," Strong said. "What Locke can do is outrun you to the outside, which is what we cannot let happen. If our guys get in a bad position, he will foot race them to the outside and we will not catch him. It is going to be very important to contain the football with Locke."
While Strong has concerns about his defense against Cobb and Locke, he also inherits a team that was offensively challenged last season. The Cardinals ranked last in the Big East in scoring last season, and besides struggling to score in the red zone, UofL's offense was often plagued by turnovers and penalties.
"When you look at our offense, people talk about spread, but it comes down to can we run the football," Strong explained.
Senior quarterback Adam Froman and running backs Bilal Powell and Victor Anderson will operate behind a veteran offensive line that returns all five starters from last season. Though the Cardinals ranked last in the Big East in rushing offense, Strong believes his team will be improved in that department.
"The offensive line is the strength of our football team," Strong said. "When you look at our offensive line, there's guys like (Mark) Wetterer, (Greg) Tomczyk, (Byron) Stingily, Mario (Benavides), Conrad Thomas and Jeff Adams; guys that have played and it's the strength of our football team."
Strong said his team will have to run the ball effectively and minimize turnovers if it hopes to upset Kentucky.
On defense, Strong is genuinely concerned about Louisville's lack of size up front, and a relatively inexperienced group in the secondary.
"Our plan to win is to play great defense," Strong said. "[But] we are not very big and are inexperienced."
Regarded as one of the top defensive coaches in college football, Strong has his work cut out trying to figure a way to disguise his team's weaknesses on defense. Last season, UofL ranked ranked last in the Big East in rushing defense, and second to last is total defense and scoring defense.
"We're not very big defensively on the line," Strong said. "We have some speed and quickness. (Greg) Scruggs has added a lot of weight and looks really good right now as a football player. (Malcolm) Tatum, Rodney Gnat and (William) Savoy have done a good job and we are going to need that whole group of guys to come and play because we are not very good, so we will have to use our speed and our quickness until we get stronger.
"What you have to do when you are little is not let people block you in and it is why we are going to have to do some moving. We cannot blitz them all of the time, but we need to move them just to give them a chance because we are not very big."
After waiting his turn for 27 years, all Charlie Strong wanted was a chance to coach his own team. Saturday afternoon at PJCS against old friend Joker Phillips and Kentucky, Louisville's new coach, will finally get his chance.
Probable: DT Tim High(Ankle); TE Pete Nochta (Knee); RB Jeremy Wright (Knee).
Out: RB Kamal Hogan (Concussion); DL Chris Johnson (Ankle); OL Kamran Joyer (Foot); WR Senorise Perry (Knee).
Out for season: TE Stephon Ball (Knee); CB Anthony Conner (Knee); OL Joe Evinger (Back); WR Michaelee Harris (Knee).
Stadium: Papa John's Cardinal Stadium
Television: ABC Regional Dave Lamont (pxp); J.C. Pearson (analyst)
Radio: WHAS 840 AM Paul Rogers (pxp); Stefan LeFors (analyst); Doug Ormay (sideline)
Live Statistics: www.UofLSports.com
Breakdown: This game is full of unknowns. There are two new coaches. New players. New schemes. And a newly expanded PJCS stadium. What isn't unknown is that Kentucky has beaten Louisville three straight years, after losing seven of the previous eight in the series. Louisville, though, almost 'upset' favored Kentucky last year on the road. This year, first-year coach Charlie Strong restores proper order to this series, pulling off a big win in his first game at UofL. Strong understands the recipe for success in this game – win the ground game, limit mistakes and play solid on special teams. In front of the largest crowd in PJCS history, that's exactly what Strong's team will do.
Breakdown: A Strong showing for the Cards in the debut of their new coach, but the Wildcats have too many proven playmakers (i.e. Randall Cobb and Derrick Locke) in the end. Still it will give UofL fans plenty of reasons to be excited about this season.
Breakdown: Louisville will unexpectedly win in the trenches where UK was presumed to have a decided advantage. The experience of the Louisville offensive line and rejuvenated running game led by Bilal Powell and Victor Anderson will have no problem with a green and thin defensive front line for the Wildcats. And playing a road opener with a brand new offensive line in hostile Papa John's Stadiumwill be a recipe for disaster for the UK offense. Winning on the lines wins the day as Louisville pulls away with a 4th quarter, game sealing touchdown.
Breakdown: UofL's defense is a work in progress and while they will be more aggressive than last year they are still pretty much the same players. UofL will have a difficult time stretching the field with the injury of Michaelee Harris. There is also inexperience due to players changing positions.
Breakdown: While researching this game I learned how much we really don't know. With practices being closed and depth charts not readily available, it's hard to really have an idea of what is going to happen. Two new coaches, two new personalities to learn. UK definitely is dealing with less change in that most of the coaching staff has remained in Lexington. I feel like both teams have playmakers and ultimately this game will come down to the timely mistake. I see this game as pretty even and I don't see it outside of 10 points in either direction.