Because of the relative strength of their programs at the time U of L joined the Big East, Louisville and West Virginia almost didn't have a choice but to become fast rivals. Even though that series got off to a predictably high-profile start, it's been the Cardinals' oft-late-season contests with unlikely rival Rutgers that have perhaps represented the highest of the highs and the lowest of the lows for Louisville in the Big East.
The most obvious example is also the most painful for Cardinal fans.
On Nov. 9, 2006, Louisville was 8-0, ranked No. 3 in the latest BCS standings and coming off of a monumental victory over then unbeaten and third-ranked West Virginia. The only two teams ranked above the Cardinals - Michigan and Ohio State - were set to play each other in the final week of the regular season. This led the common thought to be that Louisville was a mere four victories away from playing for the national championship (Seriously, take a minute and think about that. Five years ago we were four Big East wins away from a spot in the championship game. Unbelievable.).
The biggest roadblock on U of L's path to Tempe was equally unbeaten, but widely considered to be untested, Rutgers. The Empire State Building was lit up in scarlet for support as the two played in front of what is still the third-largest ESPN Thursday night audience in history.
Louisville did not win.
The 28-25 Scarlet Knight comeback is still considered to be easily the biggest win in Rutgers football history, while the loss - which included a William Gay offsides penalty that gave RU kicker Jeremy Ito a second shot at nailing the game-winning field goal - is the quintessential and unrivaled heartbreak moment for the U of L program.
Part of the reason that victory was so sweet was because of what occurred the year before in the Derby City.
A week after getting the program bowl eligible for the first time in 27 years, a confident Rutgers team roared into Papa John's Cardinal Stadium and made a statement by stomping on U of L's Cardinal bird logo during pregame warm-ups. The consequence was a 56-5 Louisville beatdown that included the Cards dropping 28 points in the third quarter alone. The victory was easily the most decisive in the season-ending five-game winning streak that propelled Louisville to a Gator Bowl bid in its first year as a Big East member.
That 2005 game had to have been in the back of the mind of at least a few Scarlet Knights when Louisville came to Piscataway looking for bowl eligibility in 2008. What happened instead was Mike Teel - who was a freshman QB in that '05 massacre - throwing for a school-record 447 yards and seven touchdowns in a 63-14 disaster for the Cardinals. Six of those seven passing TDs came in the first half, when RU took a 49-0 lead into the break. While there were certainly more heartbreaking games during the Steve Kragthorpe era, there wasn't a more embarrassing one.
If that was the low point of Kragthorpe's tenure at Louisville, the high point may have come in the season-finale against the Scarlet Knights a year earlier. After falling behind 21-3 in the first quarter, Louisville stormed all the way back and an Art Carmody game-winner sent perhaps the highest-profile senior class in U of L football history out with a win in their final game as Cardinals. Though the win brought the Cards to 6-6, they had already been assured of missing out on a bowl game, so the fans rushed the field to celebrate a tremendous end to a tremendously disappointing season.
While those two games signified the extreme high and the extreme low of life under Steve, the 2009 meeting merely signified the end. All parties concerned knew what would happen following the last whistle that night, and the 34-14 Scarlet Knight victory was essentially meaningless.
Now back to the happy.
Needing a single victory to get its senior class into the postseason for the first time, U of L blasted Rutgers 40-13 in Jersey over Thanksgiving weekend last year to get the job done. The Cards would go on to defeat Southern Miss in the Beef 'O Brady's Bowl, and Charlie Strong would be named Big East Co-Coach of the Year in his first season on the job.
Which brings us to this year's meeting, the first time the pair have not met in Louisville's last regular season game since 2006. Still, the stakes are undeniably high. Rutgers enters at 5-1 and with an almost remarkably realistic opportunity to compete for a Big East championship. Louisville is 2-4, and it's hard to envision a road to six wins for the Cardinals that doesn't include a victory over the Scarlet Knights this evening.
If the past is any indication, this figures to be an emotion-filled Friday evening.