Even before the onslaught of negative news began, it seemed like Louisville football fans were completely unsure how to approach the months leading up to the 2008 season.
It's a state of ambiguity that's understandable given the fact that this is the first year where preseason expectations for the Cards have been drastically reduced since at least 1998 (my memory's a little foggy on what the climate of the fan base was like before the start of what would ultimately be Ron Cooper's final season at the helm). And it's also the first season since U of L made the jump to the Big East where fan goals have been forced to be more complex than "win the conference and win a BCS game," or, for the more ambitious among us, "win the national championship." Now, for the first time in four years, not even the red-clad fan most willing to acknowledge the glass as half-full is seriously talking about a potential Big East title or a BCS victory over a traditional power.
So with the bar lowered for the first time in a decade, what do we do? We set fresh, achievable goals for the upcoming season, that's what (yeah!...damnit).
Mine include (in somewhat particular order):
1. Go to a bowl game
Let's not skirt around it, our non-conference schedule is sub-par and the Big East is as soft as it's been since '05. Even with everything that's happened over the last few months, there's still enough talent on this roster to make expecting at least six or seven wins far from unreasonable.
2. If bowl opponent is of equal or lesser stature, win bowl game
If we overachieve and end up taking on an above average team from a major conference that probably deserved a better fate, I can accept a postseason loss, chalking the season up as a success, and then expecting for even more improvement in 2009. But if we're in the inaugural Pablo's Taco Shack Cuernavaca Bowl against a middling team from the MAC or WAC, then I'd like to go ahead and win the thing.
People won't always take the time to examine how the trophy was earned, but they'll always notice that it looks important.
3. Beat Kentucky
Even with the off-field troubles, the resulting depth issues and the hoard of first-year starters, this game needs to be won. Missing out on the chance to win five in a row was bad enough, but to have them come into PJCS and win consecutive games for the first time in ten years would just be too much. There's also the matter of the type of effect a season-opening loss to a bitter rival would have on a program that's currently as fragile as any in the country. A loss on Aug. 31, and things will quickly get ugly on a number of levels.
4. Keep the Keg of the Nails in The 'Ville
Don't you ever touch our keg.
I almost went with beat either West Virginia or South Florida here, but I think that'd be stretching things a tad bit far.
5. The coaching staff to appear confident and competent
Now I'm not necessarily accusing last year's staff of being incompetent, but I'm totally accusing them of looking incompetent. I want to believe, but I'm going to need visual reassurance. It's just how I roll.
I want to see Kragthorpe doing something other than staring, talking quietly to coaches on his headset, gazing over that god-forsaken laminated sheet, or screaming "let's go" to his defense after an opponent scores. I want to see the head guy looking like he's got this under control, like he doesn't have to scream for no reason just to please the fans. I want to see him appearing to have significant in-game talks with his players, and not shouting insubstantial phrases of encouragement at key moments. I want him to be fired up when the situation demands it, and reassuring and composed when his troops are anxious. And I want him to do it all in sunglasses.
I'd also like to see an assistant speaking to his players at some point after the opening kickoff.
6. No more third down passes designed to pick up yardage that won't achieve a new set of downs
One more time, just one more, and I'm goin' off on the smallest person I see.
7. Drastic improvement on special teams (aside from placekicking)
I thought this was going to be an area of strength for us a year ago, but the fumbles, the penalties, the poor punting and the horrendous punt coverage was disturbingly consistent.
Of course I'd like to see improvement in the placekicking game, but I'd also like to be named King of Antarctica, and there's only about a 35% chance of that happening.
8. Limiting the number of times where an opposing receiver is left completely uncovered to zero
Two was two too many.
9. Continued advance of the evolution and education of Louisville football fans
I've always thought the best indicator of the athletic balance of power in this city was the quick exchange with the office co-worker who's a casual sports fan, knows you're a die-hard Cards fan, and uses it constantly during forced morning small talk.
In the fall, the guy will come in on Monday and instantly make a simple comment about how Louisville won or lost, and if the game was big enough, he might be able to talk about a few of the key plays or how his brother scored him tickets. In the winter, this same guy will come in after a basketball game with South Florida or Rutgers and know the names of the guys who played well, a few of the highlights and turning points, and probably how significant the win or the loss was as far as the season as a whole is concerned.
Louisville fans are still, for the most part, learning football. It's hard for anyone who's been to a game and heard 20,000 people celebrating a touchdown when 87 flags in response to an obvious hold are all over the field to say otherwise. I'm fully capable of living with this sort of thing, but what really irks me - and I'm well aware that this has been absolutely beaten to death - is the not being at your seat in time for kickoff.
Due to some inescapable commitments (Tom Lehman Fan Club meeting), I was about two minutes late for a game in 2005, and was shocked at the number of spiky-haired 30 and 40 somethings telling bad stories and laughing insincerely on the concourse when I arrived. It was then that it first dawned on me that your freshman year of high school never really ends. You remember, when it was cool to go to the football games, but not cool to actually watch the football games. Everyone hung out in circles behind the bleachers and talked like it was 8th grade recess. It was strictly a social deal, and that's what U of L football games are for a lot of people, which I'm fine with, so long as they adhere to the basketball protocol and get their networking done during halftime.
Sure, freshman year was cool (I enjoy having my license, but that's me), and I can understand wanting to relive it (lie), but try and shelve the grown-up adolescent stuff until at least five minutes into the game, because you're making the rest of us look like dicks.
10. Having Hunter Cantwell live up to the hype
Because no one deserves it more.
Here's a kid who walked on, quickly made a name for himself, and knowing full-well that he'd never have a chance to start before his senior season, elected to stay with the program because they were the only one that gave him a shot. I hope he performs phenomenally and garners the same level - or at least as close to the same level as possible - of respect and admiration from the Cardinal faithful as Brian Brohm did.
11. Control games with the run
Jeff Brohm said quickly after he was named offensive coordinator that controlling the clock via the running game was going to be his M.O. Here's hoping that sticks, because he's got a trio of running backs all capable of taking over a game, and a pair of lineman who are among the best in the nation at their position.
12. Bilal Powell doing crazy awesome things all season
You keep him healthy and on the field and this one won't be a problem.
13. Have someone step up as a legitimate No. 1 receiver
We have a lot of young guys, so this is a big issue as far as next season is concerned as well. Scott Long, I hope you're paying attention back there.
14. Win or lose, give the fans reason to stay positive
The losses made last year a disappointment, but it was the way the losses occurred that made it an absolute calamity. We're all aware of the talent, experience and depth issues, especially on the defensive end, but the fans are going to stand behind this team so long as it shows that it really does want to win and that it's working hard to improve.
Committing penalty after penalty doesn't show that. Losing to your arch-rival on a busted coverage touchdown and then beginning the very next game with a busted coverage touchdown doesn't show that. Not being able to line up in the right place after two months doesn't show that. Calling 893 four-yard outs on 3rd-and-more-than-four doesn't show that.
Work as hard as you can in practice, play as hard as you can in the games, and you will be fully supported.