LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - UofL football has had high-profile season openers before -- archrival Kentucky, Miami in the first ACC game in school history, Auburn in the Chick-fil-A game in Atlanta, to name a few.
But this year's might just top them all. The Cards take on defending national champion and preseason No. 1 Alabama on Sept. 1 in Orlando, Florida.
"We've got to approach it like it's no different than those games," Cards head coach Bobby Petrino said. "The No. 1 thing that we've got to be able to do is work hard enough and believe in each other so that we take the field truly believing that we're going to win the game."
Easier said than done. Alabama last lost a season opener in 2001.
"When you don't believe it, truly believe it, you drop the pass that you normally caught, you slip and fall, you don't throw the ball, the same curl route you practiced every day in practice all the sudden now is short or long," Petrino said.
Petrino likened the situation to a 2004 trip to Miami. The Cards battled the Hurricanes to the wire in a Thursday night national TV game before falling 41-38. Current running backs coach Kolby Smith played in that game. He said that same mindset will accompany these Cards in their trip back to the Sunshine State.
"Oh they believe it, they're working at it," Smith said. "That's what we're doing in these mat drills; everything is designed so that we beat Alabama. That's what we're preaching to them and that's how they feel and that's how they're training."
The Cards will try to pull off the upset with a quarterback making his first college start. UofL's 2016 Heisman Trophy winner, Lamar Jackson, is in the NFL, so Jawon Pass will take the snaps.
"He needs to go out and play the game the way a quarterback needs to," Petrino said. "Be perfect in the run game, get your protections set. Stay in there and compete, get hit in the chin and complete passes."
Pass saw action in four games in 2017, completing 23-of-33 passes for 238 yards and two touchdowns.
He'll be protected by an offensive line that returns four of five starters, including 6-foot-6, 300-pound Lukayus McNeil.
"He's the alpha leader of that group," offensive line coach and co-offensive coordinator Mike Summers said.
McNeil is joined up front by Mekhi Becton. He started 10 games as a freshman, and, according to Summers, showed up for his sophomore season down to 20 percent body fat at 360 pounds.
"I think there are guys in that room that have experienced success and they have confidence in each other," Summers said.
Pass will have plenty of targets to choose from. A talented tight end core and a wide receiver bunch is as loaded as any position group on the UofL roster. Jaylen Smith returns after hauling in 60 passes for 980 yards in 2017, seven for touchdowns. Seth Dawkins caught 42 passes and Dez Fitzpatrick reeled in 45 for 699 yards and a team-high nine scores.
"He's still a young guy, you know I think he could be one of the best receivers to play here," wide receivers coach and co-offensive coordinator Lonnie Galloway said of Fitzpatrick. "Now it's one of those things where the goal for him is to become an all-conference player."
The running back core will be paced by Dae Williams and Colin Wilson, who have shown flashes, but each has been hampered by injuries.
Defensively, the Cards have a new coordinator for the third time in three years. Brian VanGorder takes over for Peter Sirmon. The Cards were No. 62 in the nation in total defense last year.
Dorian Etheridge figures to be a leader on that side of the ball. He started all 13 games as a freshman and led the team with 83 tackles.
Up front, the biggest question mark is on the outside, where UofL must replace pass rushers Trevon Young and James Hearns, who combined for 11.5 sacks.
"We're going to be bigger and stronger there, but it is an inexperienced group besides Jonathan Greenard and G.G. Robinson," Petrino said.
In the secondary, Jaire Alexander was a first-round pick in this year's NFL Draft by Green Bay, and Chucky Williams was second only to Etheridge with 80 tackles.
"I really like what I see from this secondary group," Petrino said. "I think there is going to be great competition there at the corners and the safeties and the nickel spot and I think they're going to have to work extremely hard to get on the field."
The Cards are 7-1 in season openers under Petrino, the only loss coming to Auburn in 2015. UofL has faced Alabama three times, the last a 34-7 Cards win over the Crimson Tide in the 1991 Fiesta Bowl.
"We don't have to do anything extraordinary to beat them, we just have to play football the way it's supposed to be played and truly believe we can win the game," Petrino said.
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