USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.

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There's a crucial difference between Charlie Strong and Bobby Petrino, according to senior wide receiver DeVante Parker, a preseason all-conference pick: Petrino likes to score.

"They were always putting their foot on the brake," Parker said in July of the previous staff. "They didn't want to score anything."

It was frustrating, he said. This year, on the other hand, "will be more fun."

"This staff, they like to score. That's what we're looking forward to. That's what I'm looking forward to."

Of course he is: Parker, who opted to return for his senior season, is now the key cog in the happiest, friendliest, perhaps most productive passing game in all of college football, a scheme and blueprint created and mastered by one of the great offensive technicians in the game – albeit a coach who has served, at every turn, as his own worst enemy.

The spring game gave a glimpse of days to come, with the grain-of-salt caveat included: Louisville racked up 951 yards and 11 touchdowns in the end-of-drills scrimmage, with quarterback Will Gardner throwing for 542 yards and four scores against the Cardinals' second-team defense.

So the defense needs help; the secondary in particular needs help. That's not a concern to Parker, obviously, and not really a concern to the staff, and not really a concern to this program: Louisville has shifted from defense-first to offense-always, hoping that Petrino's magic touch – on the field, at least – yields not just a continuation of recent success but a bridge to another leap into the upper tier of the Atlantic Coast Conference.

LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:

And yes, I'd be foolish to not at least consider the possibility – a pretty strong possibility – that the Cardinals survive the regular season unscathed. For all its talent and confidence, I still think Louisville loses at least once before the postseason.

2013 RECAP:

In a nutshell: Louisville was a late-game stop away from an American Athletic Conference title, an undefeated regular season and another Bowl Championship Series berth. Alas: UCF scored with 23 ticks left to secure a 38-35 win, knocking Louisville from the ranks of the unbeaten and sending the Cardinals to a second-place finish in the American. That defeat seemed to take a bit out of the Cardinals' sails to close the regular season – Houston, Memphis and Cincinnati were single-digit wins – but the program rebounded to notch a convincing win against Miami (Fla.) in the Russell Athletic Bowl. Then came the departure, Strong to Texas, then came the return, Petrino to Louisville, and then came the conference shift, from the American to the ACC.

High point: Miami. The Cardinals love to play against Florida's big boys.

Low point: UCF. An even game in so many ways: Both had 22 first downs and two turnovers; UCF had 446 yards of offense to Louisville's 445; UCF averaged 6.87 yards per play to Louisville's 7.17; UCF had 46 penalty yards to Louisville's 47 … and the Knights won by a field goal.

Tidbit: Louisville might have been the best first-half team in the country. In total, the Cardinals outscored the competition 255-48 in the game's first 30 minutes, including a whopping 102-8 advantage in the first quarter – Kentucky notched a field goal, South Florida notched a field goal and Miami a safety.

Tidbit (Petrino edition): Petrino has spent nine seasons as a college coach, beginning at Louisville, moving to Arkansas and continuing with last fall's one-year stint at Western Kentucky. He's won at least eight games in eight of those seasons, with 2008 at Arkansas the lone exception; has won at least nine games in six of those years; has won at least 10 games four times; has won at least 11 games three times; and owns the most successful four-year turn in Louisville's history.

ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:

Quarterbacks taken after fourth round, 2014

1. Aaron Murray, Kansas City Chiefs
2. David Fales, Chicago Bears
3. Zach Mettenberger, Tennessee Titans
4. AJ McCarron, Cincinnati Bengals
5. Keith Wenning, Baltimore Ravens

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

Offense: Get on the Will Gardner bandwagon now, because I can virtually ensure that he'll end the year with All-ACC honors – if healthy, of course. He's the winner of the sweepstakes: Gardner grabbed hold of the starting job with a superb spring, setting him up to take flight in one of the greatest offenses at any quarterback's disposal. Yards are coming; touchdowns are coming; fun is coming, basically, and Gardner could – and maybe should, given Petrino's history – come close to replacing Teddy Bridgewater's production. That's the production, mind you, and not the impact. Gardner is set to excel, thanks in large part to the system, but replicating Bridgewater's wall-to-wall influence is, well, impossible. He'll just provide the numbers: Petrino will place Gardner in can't-fail situations, meaning the sophomore won't fail. Outside of Jameis Winston – he's pretty good – I'd say Gardner will have the best season of any quarterback in the ACC.

He'll have the luxury of a balanced and productive receiver corps. We know about Parker (55 receptions for 888 yards), who will happily embrace the Cardinals' new wide-open style. It's all about senior leadership: Parker, Eli Rogers (44 for 536), Kai De La Cruz (15 for 271) and Michaelee Harris (15 for 195) are entering their final seasons of eligibility, with Parker the star, Rogers the weapon in the slot, De La Cruz the big-play threat and Harris a commendable and reliable fourth option. Thought this quartet will do the heavy lifting, Petrino's offense will ensure increased roles for sophomore James Quick and senior Matt Milton, the latter a physically blessed target with the potential to produce at a high clip in a reserve spot. The Cardinals also have an all-conference tight end in senior Gerald Christian (28 for 426), a former Florida transfer; as if Petrino needed more toys.

The running game will have Petrino's desired mix of size, speed and strength. One player assumes all three of those qualities: Dominique Brown (825 yards) has the style to churn out tough yards and the sneaky speed to break a big play, making him the Cardinals' unquestioned lead back heading into the regular season. But let's remember Michael Dyer, the former Auburn wunderkind, and keep in mind how a healthy senior season could give Louisville a wonderful one-two punch – with Dyer the speedy, shifty, change-of-pace option. I also believe sophomore Brandon Radcliff could spell Brown in a specific role, likely in a short-yardage vein, and there's every reason to think true freshman L.J. Scott will see an immediate role after enrolling in time for spring drills.

Defense: The defense will take a step back while the offense leaps forward – and Louisville hopes for a clean wash, if not enough of an offensive uptick to retain last year's national ranking. The biggest chance is felt schematically: New defensive coordinator Todd Grantham – you remember him, of course – will implement his 3-4 base set and hope for the best, knowing full well from experience the first-year rockiness inherent to the shift. This major change is joined by a matching shift in names and duties, with no level of the defense immune from offseason personnel losses – and no one unit in better shape than another, to be honest. In short, the offense needs to take a step forward to offset the projected decline on defense.

The front seven feels it more than most, as expected. The linebacker corps is loaded with converted defensive ends learning new roles: Lorenzo Mauldin (40 tackles, 9.5 sacks) and Deiontrez Mount will start on the weak side and strong side, respectively, bringing a pass-rush mentality to the positions, while sophomore Nick Dawson will compete for a role on the strong side and in the middle. The two inside spots will go to junior Keith Brown, who missed all of last season due to injury, and junior James Burgess (75 tackles, 9.0 for loss), an around-the-ball defender who could flourish if protected by the bodies up front. That's not a bad starting four; the only question is whether the group as a whole can adjust. Depth is fine: Louisville has Dawson, sophomore Keith Kelsey and JUCO transfer Trevon Young pegged as the first three off the bench.

Given the offseason departures, this isn't a terrible time for the Cardinals to shift into a three-lineman set. The three issues: one, a lack of experience in the scheme; two, the lack of experience altogether; and three, the lack of depth. But the Cardinals have the size to pull it off, from sophomore DeAngelo Brown on the nose to ends Sheldon Rankins and B.J. Dubose. The concern is that this trio hasn't really proven themselves, if largely because of a lack of opportunities – and let's also remember that Brown, perhaps the key to the whole deal in the middle, hasn't played since 2012. Unlike at linebacker, I can find issues both with the adjustment to a new style and the Cardinals' personnel.

The secondary will soon have a pair of Georgia transfers at its disposal – just not yet. In 2014, the Cardinals will have experience on the corners but will rebuild along the back end, having lost a pair of all-conference, all-everything safeties. This is a concern: Hakeem Smith and Calvin Pryor did it all for Louisville, maintaining the discipline needed to keep the Cardinals among the nation's best at limiting big plays – just 11 of 30 or more yards through the air last fall – and the toughness needed to aid the front seven in run support. At times, the Cardinals are really going to struggle downfield. But it's not all bad.

Louisville hasn't identified a starting pair at safety, true, but the staff has found a solid five-player rotation: Gerod Holliman and Jarrod Barnes, both sophomores, and redshirt freshmen Chucky Williams, Richard Benjamin and Terrence Ross. At some point, Louisville will also have a healthy Jermaine Reve to work into the mix – though Reve can play both safety and cornerback. That the Cardinals have two returning starters on the outside will likely keep Reve on the back end. I'm really high on junior Charles Gaines (22 tackles, 5 interceptions), a likely all-league pick who relied mostly on athleticism as a first-year starter last fall – and as a converted wide receiver – but has a stronger grasp of the mental side heading into September. While senior Terell Floyd is back on the other side, don't be shocked if fellow senior Andrew Johnson makes a push for the starting job this month.

Special teams: Where the Cardinals struggle on special teams is in defensive field position: Louisville doesn't get much on kickoffs or on punts, though senior punter Ryan Johnson is fine in terms of directional ability. Where the Cardinals do well is in the big picture, with John Wallace one of the top kickers in the ACC and the return group of Gaines, De La Cruz, Quick and Rogers capable of explosiveness.

POSITION(S) TO WATCH:

Offensive line: One returning starter, senior Jake Smith, could impact the Cardinals' direction along the interior of the line. Smith could remain at center, where he earned all-conference honors as a junior; he could also move to right guard, however. If he sticks at center, Louisville could hand right guard to senior Chris Acosta, who has starting experience. That doesn't seem likely: Smith seems destined for guard, a decision that would hand the middle to sophomore Tobijah Hughley, who had a strong spring. Rounding out the interior is senior left guard John Miller, a steady producer set for all-conference honors. So there will be three all-league linemen up front: Smith, Miller and senior left tackle Jamon Brown, the latter a hulking and bruising protector with the strength to own the left side on early downs. I could even envision a scenario where Brown could – but very likely won't – shift to the right side, but that hinges on how well JUCO transfer Kelby Johnson takes to the offense during fall camp. The most likely situation, from left to right: Brown, Miller, Hughley, Smith and junior Ryan Mack. While this is a solid group, it's fair to question Louisville's depth across the board.

GAME(S) TO WATCH:

Miami (Fla.): It's a tone-setter and the bridge to a potential burst out of the gate as a member of the ACC. From there, Louisville takes on Murray State, Virginia, Florida International, Wake Forest and Syracuse; as such, a win in the opener creates a strong possibility of an undefeated start heading into a trip to Clemson on Oct. 11. Then things get nasty: Clemson on the road, Florida State at home and Notre Dame on the road in a five-game span.

SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:

In a nutshell: Given Clemson's changing cast of personnel – and even if we all think the absolute world of Chad Morris – Louisville may very well have the second-best offense in the ACC, trailing only Florida State. There's so much to like; in fact, the only thing to dislike is the lack of proven depth up front. If the line stays healthy, however, and provides Gardner with ample protection, the Cardinals' attack is going to tear to shreds unprepared defensive backfields and provide sneakily dangerous production on the ground, providing the sort of balanced, opportunistic, big-play attack often lacking under the previous staff. This is Petrino's gift: Louisville is going to have an absolutely fantastic, often unstoppable offense.

In 2014, the growth on offense will be mirrored by a slide back on defense. Part of this is due to the scheme change: Grantham's going to implement this 3-4 base set and force the roster to catch up, a decision that will pay off in the long run but provide growing pains for the duration of the regular season. I don't really worry about the pass rush, which should be fine with the move of several ends to outside linebacker. I'm more worried about stopping the run and buttoning up the secondary, which should be far more prone to big plays downfield with the move at safety. That's another issue: Scheme is one thing, but Louisville is clearly weaker in personnel.

So there's a bit of a lack of balance, but not enough to immediately make Louisville one of the best teams in the ACC – essentially locked along with Duke and North Carolina behind the leading pair of Florida State and Clemson. If in the Coastal, I'd probably pick Louisville to win the division. As is, playing FSU and the Tigers – not to mention Miami and Notre Dame – is difficult, meaning the Cardinals will lose at least three and perhaps four games during the regular season. I'd be shocked by more than four; I think 8-4 is the result, and I'd likely view the Cardinals as deserving of a spot in the top 25 with nine wins – if one of the nine comes against either Clemson or the Fighting Irish.

Dream season: Louisville loses to Clemson and Florida State yet sweeps the rest, giving the ACC a third team inside the top 15.

Nightmare season: The Cardinals lose to Miami, Syracuse, Clemson, Boston College, Florida State and Notre Dame. In this scenario, not even a nightmare season includes a loss to Kentucky.

UP NEXT:

Who's No. 28? The list of this school's graduates includes three former United States Governors, with the most recent completing his turn in office in 1972.

RANKING EVERY FBS TEAM FOR 2014

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