Just about everyone associated with Louisville football has had Thursday night's game against Rutgers circled for months now. The reasons have been varied - rivalry game, chance to make a statement on national television, quality win, etc. - but there's no question that the circle has only grown bolder in recent weeks as an already languid list of Cardinal opponents have devolved into a group even less formidable than originally thought.
Louisville's schedule has become a burned-out storyline both locally and nationally primarily because the Cardinals' worth as a national title contender is so much more difficult to gauge than that of the other teams discussed in the same breath. Which teams U of L needs to lose, how badly the Cards need to beat their next opponent and what the teams they've already beaten are doing have all become topics discussed more frequently than Teddy Bridgewater and company's actual play on the field.
The assumption in all of these conversations, columns and debates is that Louisville will finish the regular season 12-0. As a result of that presumption and the resulting controversy over how such a performance might fit into the race for the national title, it's almost felt as if the Cards are an FCS independent this year; a man without a country stuck in purgatory for a single season dealing with a mixed slate of old rivals and random, overmatched teams from all across the rest of the country. Their only goal an unscathed run through the regular season and a shot at a big boy in the BCS.
An undefeated season and the potential right to complain endlessly about title-game exclusion have become such a focal point that I think a lot of people have lost sight of what a loss at this point in the season would really mean.
The most overlooked subplot of the week is this: If Louisville were to lose to Rutgers on Thursday night, there's a very real chance that the Cardinals could stomp out the last six opponents on their schedule and still not get the chance to play in a BCS bowl.
Imagine that for a second.
Imagine U of L coming together after an outlier performance against the Scarlet Knights and rallying to rip every opponent on the second half of their schedule by an average of 31 points. Imagine Teddy Bridgewater re-writing the record books and solidifying his spot as the No. 1 pick in next April's NFL Draft. Imagine the Cards convincing everyone that they're the best squad to ever don the red and black and one fully capable of pulling off a repeat of last year's triumph over Florida if given the chance.
Now imagine that same team finishing its season with a Russell Athletic Bowl appearance that would almost certainly be overshadowed by a certain basketball game played earlier in the day. It's enough to make you lose a couple hours of sleep.
Louisville fans are quick to pound our collective chest over the program's Orange and Sugar Bowl triumphs, but we're equally quick to conceal the fact that it took some significant outside help to even get those opportunities.
After unraveling in the second half against Rutgers, the 2006 Cards were forced to watch and hope that the Scarlet Knights would somehow fall twice in their last four games so that U of L could spend New Year's in Miami. The second of those losses happened on the final weekend of the regular season, when West Virginia pulled out a 41-39 triple overtime win that took about 15 years off of every Cardinal fan's life.
The lasting image of U of L's 2012 season has become the stunning Sugar Bowl upset of the No. 3 team in the country, a win now almost unanimously regarded as the biggest in program history. The secondary story has become Louisville's dramatic come-from-behind victory over Rutgers in Piscataway, in which a badly injured Teddy Bridgewater came off the bench to lock up a BCS bid for the Cards. But had that same RU team not spit the bit against Pittsburgh a week earlier, the regular season-finale would have been totally meaningless, and a Louisville team that somehow found a way to lose to Connecticut at home would have been forced to wrap up a disappointing season (and it would have been viewed as disappointing) in the Florida Citrus Bowl.
On Monday, Charlie Strong and Teddy Bridgewater both stated their belief that Louisville is the best team in the country. There's no way to know whether or not they're right, but I'm fully convinced that the Cards belong in the discussion. I'm equally convinced that they'd prove exactly that if given the chance. One slip-up in game like Thursday night's and that chance could become nothing more than a talking point tossed around sporadically for decades to come. You'd hate to see "that was the best team Louisville's ever had" shift to "I still think that might have been the best team Louisville's ever had" because of one bad three-hour stretch, and that's part of what's on the line each and every time these players and coaches take the field.
This group is too mature, too focused and, quite frankly, too good to put itself in the position that the most talented Cardinal teams of the past have. While the national talk leading up to the Rutgers game will undoubtedly continue to surround things like strength of schedule and margin of victory, for Louisville, the game has to be strictly about themselves and the survival of those goals they laid out at the beginning of the season. It has to be about the survival of who they want to be this weekend, next January, and 30 years from now.