LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) -- Louisville coach Charlie Strong has been pleased with his team's mental focus this month and expects it in Sunday's season opener against Ohio.
Facing a Bobcats team that upset Penn State in last year's opener and has won consecutive bowl games should keep the attention of the ninth-ranked Cardinals. Strong enters his fourth season with high expectations after an 11-2 finish and a Sugar Bowl upset of Florida.
Louisville's preseason ranking is the highest ever. The Cardinals have been picked to win the new American Athletic Conference -- formerly the Big East, which they've won the past two seasons. Living up to those lofty hopes means taking every opponent seriously, especially an Ohio team capable of pulling off another opening-game surprise.
"You have to approach everybody the same," said Cardinals junior center Jake Smith, adding that the coaching staff has reminded players of Ohio's big win.
"You can't think that just because they went and beat a big team that they're going to come beat us. We want to go win every game. They're a good football team, and we have to prepare as such."
The coach said he feels good about Louisville's prospects. The Cardinals seemed intent on building off last season's success almost immediately after their 33-23 victory against the Gators became final.
However, Strong added, "We've got our work cut out for us."
Louisville's veteran roster features 19 starters back including 12 on defense. Leading the offense is junior quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, a potential Heisman Trophy candidate after passing for 3,718 yards and 27 touchdowns last season.
The Cardinals' backfield will include a familiar face in senior Senorise Perry, whom Strong picked as the starter in a three-way competition including transfer Michael Dyer and Dominique Brown. Dyer rushed for 1,000 yards in both seasons with Auburn while leading the Tigers to the 2010 national championship.
"When we trot out there with the first play, Senorise will trot out there with the first offense," said Strong, crediting Louisville's training staff and Perry's dedication for helping him return nine months after a season-ending knee injury.
Though Perry will start, Strong said all of the Cardinals' backs including sophomore Corvin Lamb would be involved against Ohio and that he hopes to find his main ball carrier from that group.
Louisville's defense meanwhile will try to stop an Ohio offense that ranked 27th last season in rushing at 203.3 yards per game thanks to senior Beau Blankenship, who rushed for a school-record 1,604 yards and 15 TDs. He's among 16 returning starters on a Bobcats squad favored to repeat as the Mid-American Conference's East division champion.
"We've been focusing on him the whole summer," Louisville linebacker Preston Brown said of Blankenship.
The Cardinals also will have to contain Bobcats senior quarterback Tyler Tettleton, who passed for 2,844 yards and 18 touchdowns. Ohio was also good with takeaways, ranking seventh in turnover margin at +1.15 in 2012.
In many respects, Ohio might be the opponent the Cardinals need to remind them not to dwell on last year's success. In a new league that has added Central Florida, Houston, Memphis, Temple to the schedule, Louisville faces some unknowns in its lone AAC season before heading to the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2014.
Fortunately for Strong, it's not an issue because of an experienced roster that has resulted in players being mentally locked in during practices this month, hungry to back up last season's results.
"I'd probably say it's the most focused team I've had because it's also a much older team," said the coach, adding that winning the Sugar Bowl has provided many benefits. "They understand that they really have to work now because the level of expectations has risen. They want to set the standard for the program and know how to manage those expectations."
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Teddy Bridgewater begins his Heisman campaign, but all eyes could end up on transfer running back Michael Dyer, making his debut in a Louisville uniform. Dyer, who won MVP honors in the 2011 BCS national title game with Auburn, enrolled this fall but has not won a starting job yet. Instead, he will get playing time behind starter Senorise Perry, who has made a remarkable comeback from an ACL injury last November. Ohio, meanwhile, is not a pushover opponent thanks to returning quarterback Tyler Tettleton, one of the best players in the MAC.