Coming off of an up-and-down 2015 season, capped with Louisville winning eight of their final ten games including the Music City Bowl, the #19 Cardinals open the 2016 season against the Charlotte 49ers. This is the first time both teams will have played each other in football, and both teams enter their openers with completely different objectives this season. Louisville enters this season looking to break through the glass ceiling and win the ACC in football, while Charlotte looks to continue their transition as a full-fledged FBS member and trying to become bowl eligible for the first time.
About the Charlotte 49ers
Officially named the UNC-Charlotte 49ers, many fans will remember the school as old basketball rivals when Louisville used to be in the Conference USA. However, Charlotte did not have a football team up until 2013, when the school launched one under the FCS level. Charlotte then transitioned to the FBS in 2015, stealing a win at Georgia State and throttling Presbyterian before losing their final ten games.
The 49ers are led by head coach Brad Lambert, who previously worked at Wake Forest under Jim Grobe. Charlotte will run some fast up-tempo offense under Lambert and offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen, but their failure to reliably score meant an exhausted defense and giving up a lot of points. In their ten-game losing streak, only one game did Charlotte’s defense allow under 27 points (a 17-7 loss to Florida Atlantic). In particular, they struggled mightily to stop the running game, giving up 200+ yards multiple times.
But one good benefit for Charlotte is that with every loss, Lambert got to play multiple guys and get them some game experience. The 49ers have established a vision of an aggressive team that will want to control the pace and wreak havoc on defense. Will the experience in their two-deep translate into enough wins for bowl eligibility? That remains to be seen, but with an established up-tempo offense and aggressive attitude, the 49ers might give some teams a run for their money in 2016.
Players to Watch:
- RB Kalif Phillips: Phillips was second team All-Conference USA last season with 961 yards and five touchdowns last season, before a knee injury ultimately sidelined him. With a new quarterback in a balanced, high-tempo offense, expect Phillips to be the focal point of their offense.
- DT Larry Ogunjobi: In spite of Charlotte lacking a lot of defensive prowess, the 49ers found a player that is a havoc-stat machine in Ogunjobi. The senior will try to attack Louisville’s interior offensive linemen and limit Louisville’s running game, forcing Lamar Jackson to show his improved passing and beat them vertically.
- QB Kevin Olsen: Olsen is going to be the X-factor for the 49ers this season. If Charlotte wants to make the leap to a bowl game in 2016, Olsen will have to be serviceable enough to prevent a quarterback carousel like last season. Kevin is the younger brother of Carolina Panthers All-Pro tight end Greg Olsen, and transferred from Miami to be Charlotte’s new starting quarterback.
Keys to Victory:
- Control the tempo: With Charlotte, you know that they will run up-tempo and try to gas Louisville’s defense out. However, Charlotte struggled as a unit in 2015 and often left their defense out for long drives. If Louisville can get quick three-and-outs while forcing Charlotte to endure longer drives on defense, they will likely put up points in bunches.
- Run the ball effectively: Extending on controlling the tempo, Louisville should look to establish the running game by any means, whether it’s Brandon Radcliff or Lamar Jackson. Charlotte may have a decent run-stopper in Ogunjobi, but the defense as a whole struggled to stop the run, including 415 yards allowed to Kentucky in last year’s loss.
- Maintain your composure: Although it is the season opener, and Louisville is expected to win by a lot of points, it’s easy to overlook a team like this and subsequently underperform. Louisville should look to control what they can do in all three phases, and as cliche as that may sound, just worrying about execution is sometimes the simplest solution.
All picks were unanimous in favor of Louisville.
Justin Krueger: 59-10. Louisville piles on the points, Lamar gets a hat trick of touchdowns both passing and rushing, and the team celebrates with some hot Carolina BBQ.
Jacob Pratt: 52-3. The Cardinals will be ready for a Charlotte team that is still building up a program. Expect this one to be over by halftime.
LJ The Fiasco: 55-7. Cards come out firing on all cylinders, led by Brandon Radcliff’s big rushing game. Second team gets the start before halftime.
Terrence Sullivan: 63-10. Offense displays fireworks as Louisville returns to vintage Bobby-ball. Running game is the difference.
Jeff Nunn: 65-3. They finished 2-10 with a 58-10 loss to Kentucky. The current spread for this game is 39 points; I don’t think that’s enough. Expect to see Bolin most of the second half.
Paige Sherrard: 70-10. Lamar has two rushing touchdowns in the first half, possibly the first quarter.
Jeremy Wahman: 69-0. We’ll score 24 in the first quarter, over 50 at halftime and three quarterbacks throw for two touchdowns each.
Mitch Motley: 68-6. Lamar throws for three touchdowns, rushes for one and only has two incompletions. Jeremy Smith has a big day with 130 yards and one score.