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Petrino's challenge at Louisville: Taking 9-4 debut a step further in Year 2 with Cardinals

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LOUISVILLE, Kentucky — Bobby Petrino has some wins in hand entering his second season as Louisville's coach even before his Cardinals open Saturday against No. 6 Auburn in Atlanta.

Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham and offensive counterpart Garrick McGee passed up opportunities with the NFL's Oakland Raiders and Oklahoma respectively to keep the coaching staff intact as it aims to build on last year's 9-4 finish and bowl appearance.

"I think that gives us a chance to take a step forward and get better," Petrino said of the continuity.

Recruits are also buying into Petrino's appeal, and his current roster has been trouble-free off the field. The coach's task is turning everything into real victories for Louisville, which begins unranked and picked third in the Atlantic Coast Conference's Atlantic Division.

Saturday's Kickoff Classic in the Georgia Dome against Auburn is the first meeting between the schools since the Tigers won 16-3 in 1974. It's also the first of two ranked opponents Louisville will face in the season's first 12 days; the Cardinals will host No. 12 Clemson on Sept. 17.

Louisville enters the neutral-site contest with new faces on both sides of the ball, especially on offense.

Petrino's biggest issue is deciding whether Reggie Bonnafon, Will Gardner or Kyle Bolin will start at quarterback against Auburn, and indications are it will be a game-day decision.

On the other side of the ball, Louisville's defense appears capable of being as stingy as 2014's sixth-ranked unit despite losing seven starters. All three QBs meanwhile have shown enough promise for Petrino to delay his choice as long as possible.

PHOTO: Louisville football coach Bobby Petrino, right, athletic director Tom Jurich and Mark Jurich, left, senior associate athletic director for development, laugh while talking about a stadium expansion, Friday, Aug. 28, 2015, in Louisville, Ky. Louisville plans a $55 million expansion that will make Cardinal Stadium the state's largest at 65,000 seats upon completion, the school announced Friday. The stadium would include 10,000 additional seats in an enclosed north end zone and upgrades to the team's training center. Tom Jurich gave no indication when construction would begin other than saying "ASAP" after money is raised. (Matt Stone/The Courier-Journal via AP)
Louisville football coach Bobby Petrino, right, athletic director Tom Jurich and Mark Jurich, left, senior associate athletic director for development, laugh while talking about a stadium expansion, Friday, Aug. 28, 2015, in Louisville, Ky. Louisville plans a $55 million expansion that will make Cardinal Stadium the state's largest at 65,000 seats upon completion, the school announced Friday. The stadium would include 10,000 additional seats in an enclosed north end zone and upgrades to the team's training center. Tom Jurich gave no indication when construction would begin other than saying "ASAP" after money is raised. (Matt Stone/The Courier-Journal via AP)

The question is how they'll respond to the big-game atmosphere against Auburn, which is favored to win the tough Southeastern Conference.

"We have a lot of newness, so it's almost like starting over as far as teaching and executing offensively," Petrino said Monday. "But I really like our talent. It's just a matter of how quickly can we get them to operate at the execution (level) that we need. ...

"Normally in Year 2, you would say everybody understands what we're doing now and can take further steps ahead. But we really are young offensively."

Former Louisville coach Howard Schnellenberger, who left Miami after winning the national championship in 1983 and turned a moribund Cardinals program into conference and bowl winners, believes the team will be fine.

Schnellenberger notes Petrino's only losing season as a college coach was his first at Arkansas (5-7 in 2008), which eventually became an SEC contender. He credits his successor for taking over a Louisville squad that lost star quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to the NFL and leading the Cardinals from unranked start to a fourth straight bowl game and No. 24 final ranking in its first ACC season — with three QBs yet.

"The first year is always the hardest because everybody has to get to know each other and believe in each other," said Schnellenberger, who endured three losing years with the Cardinals before finishing 8-3 in 1988.

"The progress you want to see is in the big games you win and lose as well as your record. Your record obviously has to get better, but if you win the big games that's how you evaluate your progress."

No matter what happens this weekend, Petrino has kept interest high among Louisville's fan base. The Cardinals sold out their 31,000-ticket allotment for Auburn, and the school last week announced a $55 million plans to expand capacity at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium by 10,000 seats to 65,000.

Judging from a recruiting class of talent from across the Southeast — including Georgia, Petrino noted Monday — winning remains a big selling point. Current players and coaches have certainly bought in, just the attitude they'll need to handle a first-half schedule featuring division foes Clemson and Florida State. First up is Auburn.

"It's fun to see (the players) grow," said Grantham, adding that he's "moved on" from the Raiders' interview. "I enjoy being around them and that's probably the most exciting thing about being here."

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