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Louisville takes aim at Florida State, Clemson in highly-competitive ACC race


By Russ Brown
KyForward Correspondent

If there was one glaring reminder Thursday during the kickoff of the two-day Atlantic Coast Conference Media Days in Charlotte, N.C., of how fast things can change in college football it was apparent in the person of Lamar Jackson.

Last year at this time, Jackson was a relative unknown, coming off a promising but up and down freshman season as a part-time starter at quarterback for the University of Louisville. This week he was back for another round of interviews, but in the role of one of the headliners due to his status as the defending Heisman Trophy winner.

Bobby Petrino and the Cardinals have Florida State and Clemson to contend with in the ACC (UL Athletics Photo)

So what does Jackson have in mind for an encore? Nothing much different from the pursuit of any other player in his position. Improving on UofL’s 9-4 record of 2016, with “the biggest goal” being a national championship.

Before that can happen, of course, the Cards need to win an ACC title, and that means finding a way to crack the dominance of Florida State and Clemson. After finishing third behind that duo in its first two seasons in the league, UofL made significant progress last year. The Cards thumped the Seminoles 64-20 in the third game of the season, but lost to the Tigers 42-36 in Death Valley two weeks later and wound up tying them for the Atlantic Division crown at 7-1. Clemson owned the tiebreaker, advanced to the ACC championship game and went on to defeat Alabama 35-31 for the national title.

Now the question facing the Cards is whether they can take the next step and represent the Atlantic Division in the ACC championship game. Once again it will be Florida State and Clemson standing in the way. The Noles are loaded with talent and are considered national championship contenders. The Tigers had six players drafted by the NFL, highlighed by quarterback Deshaun Watson and wide receiver Mike Williams, and another four were signed as undrafted free agents, but Clemson will still be very good.

Louisville will host Clemson on Sept. 16 in the third game of the season and meet FSU on Oct. 21 in Tallahassee.

“This is a really tough conference, but we have high expectations for this team,” UofL coach Bobby Petrino told the ACC gathering. “Our coaching staff does, our players do and our fans and administration do. It’s going to be very competitive. Every team we play has really good players and is very well-coached. So we’re going to have to do a great job of being in great condition, developing our depth and being able to perform in the fourth quarter when the pressure is on. I think that’s what you’re going to see, a lot of fourth quarter wins or losses throughout the conference.”

Speaking at SEC Media Day Wednesday, Alabama coach Nick Saban said Florida State “probably has as many good players returning as anybody in college football.’

“They’re built like an SEC team, you know, like our teams,” Saban added. “You think of Florida State, you think of fast, explosive players, which they have a lot of, but they are also a big, physical, play great defense, tough team. And that’s certainly the kind of team they have this year.”

Alabama and Florida State will open the season against each other on Sept. 2 in the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.

ACC predictions: The annual preseason ACC rankings by the media won’t be released until after Friday’s Coastal Division session, but here are my predictions.

Atlantic division: Florida State, Louisville, Clemson, N.C. State, Wake Forest, Syracuse, Boston College.

Coastal division: Miami, Pittsburgh, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, North Carolina, Duke, Virginia.

Speedy recovery: Petrino gave an optimistic evaluation of senior defensive end Trevon Young’s status for the coming season, saying Young’s hip is healed and he should be “100 percent.” Young fractured his hip against Texas A&M in the 2015 Music City Bowl and sat out last season.

“Trevon is doing great,” Petrino said. “He’s had a really good summer. He’s strong, feeling confident. We have all the anticipation that he’ll be able to go 100 percent, which is really unbelievable. I’m cheering for him. I just want to see him be able to come out and play the way he used to play.”

Young had 8.5 sacks and was a disruptive influence for the defense before getting hurt. He was limited in contact drills during spring practice and didn’t play in the Red-White intrasquad game. Young is listed as the starter at the edge-rushing spot, where he would replace top edge rusher Devonte Fields.

Jackson offers praises:Asked about what weapons he will have available at running back and wide receiver, Jackson mentioned Reggie Bonnafon and Jaylen Smith. In the preseason depth chart, the versatile Bonnafon is listed as the starting running back, while Smith is considered the Cards’ top receiver.

“I want to start out with Reggie Bonnafon,” Jackson said. “He plays all types of positions — running back, quatrerback, receiver. He’s just a freakish athlete and he does a tremendous job with being coached, getting into position, trying to be the best. Jaylen is another tremendous guy coming back for me. Can’t wait to see him out there. It’s a lot of receivers we have; I can’t name them all, you’re going to have to see for yourself.”


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