It's strange to think of a football game against Syracuse as a pivotal matchup in a schedule that includes more of the nation's top teams than Louisville has seen in years. Games against The Orange on the road have always been hard to read (Louisville is 3-3 all-time at Syracuse), and everyone remembers Louisville's last trip to the Dome no matter how much anyone tries to forget about it. That loss in 2012 was important at the time, and while the Cards aren't undefeated and it isn't November, a loss tomorrow night would be too.
Louisville's 4-1 record as it stands is perhaps the most uneasy 4-1 in the history of Louisville football. It's a good record, yet even if the Virginia game had played out differently, Louisville would be an uneasy 5-0. All of the reasons why have been debated, and most are valid. The quarterback situation isn't settled, which is almost never a good thing. The offensive line has had struggles, which is especially not good with an iffy quarterback situation. The list goes on, and most of it has already been discussed at length.
But Louisville's still 4-1.
Winning ugly is part of the deal sometimes, and that's what Louisville has had to do so far this season. Well, sort of. In reality, there have only been two games in which they haven't been in complete control, and they found a way to win one of them (Wake Forest). For how brutal the FIU game was, there still was never a serious chance that Louisville was going to lose.
So here we are at 4-1, heading to Syracuse where nobody ever knows what's going to happen. How big of a deal is this game? Considering who comes next, it's pretty big, and it could prove to be a turning point in the season. As we've known all along, October is going to be a gauntlet for this Louisville team. Frankly, it would be for most teams in America. Now, they're standing in the starting gate.
After Syracuse comes a trip to Clemson, a home date with NC State and the highly-anticipated pre-Halloween showdown with Florida State. All three of those teams are likely (time will tell) better than anyone Louisville has played to date, and they'll all come in a row. The term "must win" is grossly overused and probably doesn't even apply here, but it comes close. Football is never as simple as, "if we win this game, it could change the whole season", but a good win at Syracuse tomorrow night could do wonders for this team in particular. They seem to be in desperate need of a game to point to and say, "this is what we look like when we're at the top of our game." Maybe the Miami game was close in some areas, but that game already feels distant after the question marks that have arisen since.
When Louisville gets to Clemson next week, a place it's never been, there won't be time to not be confident. They'll have to have a good bit of resolve and steadiness to emerge from Death Valley with a win, and even if they have those things it will be a battle. Winning at Syracuse amidst an Orange Out (we'll see how it looks, but it sounds nice) can be the game that provides the mental model of how this edition of Bobby Petrino's Louisville wins games.
In fact, it probably should be the game that molds that model. Notre Dame proved a fairly good way to stop the Orange's rush-heavy offense last week when they stymied Terrel Hunt's ability to scamper and held 'Cuse to 15 points. Louisville is conveniently ranked third in the nation in rush defense (allowing just over 58 yards per game), suggesting that the match-up may be in their favor despite Syracuse being a top-25 team in rushing.
Offensively, this game is the perfect opportunity for AFROS to become real again. The other thing Notre Dame did in their victory over the Orange is beat them through the air. Everett Golson threw for 362 yards and four touchdowns, including a 72-yard touchdown bomb. Petrino will undoubtedly be taking a look at just how they picked on Syracuse in the passing game, and he's pretty good himself at organizing an aerial attack. James Quick seems like a guy who could be Reggie Bonnafon's best friend tomorrow night.
While the game is almost a pick 'em, Louisville is the favorite at the Carrier Dome. To the untrained eye, the Cards match up well with the Orange, and it comes at a time when they could use a feel-good victory. It feels like one is far past due.
All told, it's a road game at Syracuse. Weird things happen there, and there's no telling what could happen this time around. Maybe the two-year hiatus has changed things. We won't have to wait long to find out.