There's little doubt that of the seven remaining games on the '07 Louisville Cardinal football team's docket, the one set to be played inside Papa John's Cardinal Stadium on Friday night appears on paper to be the least significant. The 14.5-point home favorites could slip-up against a far less talented Utah team, and the "we can still win the Big East and go to the BCS" movement wouldn't skip a beat.
Take a closer look and I think it becomes clear that many fans are underestimating just how significant the immediate consequences of tonight's contest could be for this season and this program.
The NC State win was great for morale, but now the team takes the field in a place where the patrons suddenly no longer have to struggle to remember the last time they saw the home team lose. A fact many are still having a hard time getting over.
Despite Louisville winning for the first time in three tries, the topic still on the tip of the tongues of Cardinal fans and the local media alike this week has been the booing and early exits that have taken place at all three home games. The issue has been thrust into the spotlight so much so that it has become more polarizing to the U of L fan base than opinion of the embattled new head coach.
A week after being forced to digest the first loss to Kentucky in five years, Cardinal nation showed up in full force two Saturdays ago to to communicate to the team that planet red was still 100% behind them. What ensued assured that the atmosphere before tonight's game will be vastly different.
The conflict between the two groups of fans (pro-booing vs. anti-booing) has become so frenzied since the Syracuse game that you get the feeling there is a small contingency of fans who will come to the stadium tonight secretly yearning for a reason to let the home team have it. Rest assured that if the product on the field isn't up to snuff, there will be a throng of people eager to voice their displeasure. The only significant difference from two weeks ago is that there will also be a throng of people voicing their displeasure with the people voicing their displeasure.
It's a situation that has the potential to get very ugly, and could have extremely negative repercussions as far as the rest of the season is concerned.
It's also a situation that could be avoided by the team taking care of business on the field.
But if things do go wrong early, don't think for a second that the players won't have their ears open and alert, because they read the newspapers and feel the buzz the same way we do. No one on the roster - least of all Mario Urrutia - was pleased with the way they performed or were treated by the crowd two weeks ago. If U of L falls behind in dramatic fashion and the fans respond with something other than encouragement, I think the players will completely turn their backs on the folks they're supposed to be entertaining. You'd hate to think that the road could become a safe haven for any team in college football, but that's exactly what will happen.
Fan relations and lack of home field advantage aside, Louisville needs a victory for momentum. The win in Raleigh was a nice kick start, but if the Cardinals don't pick up significant speed they're liable to be run over next Saturday in Cincinnati.
A possibly 6-0 Bearcat team will be anxious to taste victory in a rivalry that has been decidedly one-sided in recent years. In a move usually reserved for its basketball team, UC students camped out for tickets this week to make sure they'd be able to see the sold out Battle for the Keg of Nails in person. Nippert Stadium will have never seen a rowdier crowd.
All of this could have dire consequences for a visiting team limping into town after a second humiliating and debilitating home loss.
This is the deepest and most talented conference a Louisville football team has ever played in, making it a bad year for all of this on and off the field controversy. It's scary to say, but a win or loss tonight might ultimately decide whether or not the Cards go bowling for the tenth straight season.
Sure we'd all be disappointed with a 6-6 record and an appearance in the PapaJohns.com Bowl, but can you imagine the holiday season without a U of L bowl game to watch? Sending Brian Brohm, Harry Douglas, and the rest of the seniors off with a December win in Toronto or Birmingham certainly wouldn't be ideal, but it'd sure beat the hell out of saying goodbye to them after a home loss, or even a home win, against Rutgers in November.
If Louisville loses to Utah tonight, the possibility is still there for them to have a positive season. The reality is that it won't happen.
For more reasons than I think any of us are capable of putting into words, this game matters.