In a few hours, a two-loss Louisville football team will play host to an undefeated Florida State squad ranked in the top five in an ESPN Thursday night showcase game. It's all exactly the same as the last time the Seminoles came to town, except that everything is different.
I was a high school senior in the fall of 2002, and on the day of Sept. 26, I received no less than five free ticket offers for that evening's game at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium. A fall baseball commitment forced me to turn down each one, but if we're being completely honest, I'm not 100 percent certain I would have accepted even if my schedule had been open. Everyone was excited that Florida State was in town, but it was going to rain a lot, and Louisville was going to lose. This was the common thought in the hours leading up to kickoff.
That last paragraph is about as accurate a summary there is regarding both how far Louisville football has come, and how far fans my age who were raised with a bit of a basketball first lean have come.
To be clear, I grew up with the same level of passion for Louisville football as I had for Cardinal basketball. It's just that the guys in red and black who played with the oblong ball didn't have the means to reciprocate that passion in the same way the ones who played with the roundball could. It's hard to give yourself wholly to something that you know can never do the same in return, and that was the case with U of L football in 1990s and early 2000s.
Louisville basketball could win national titles, it had won national titles, but despite the shot of life Howard Schnellenberher had injected into the program, the gridiron ceiling was never higher than a trip to the Liberty Bowl to freeze and watch the Cards face a team from the Mountain West. Given that Conference USA wanted to boot Louisville from the league entirely at the time Tom Jurich was hired, there were multiple years where even that felt like a pipedream.
U of L fans were hungry for that upset in 2002, but there was still a sense of, "even if we get crushed, it will be cool to see Florida State in our stadium." The Seminoles were a show by themselves, the embodiment of something Louisville had never been and never could be. It's the reason why a Cardinal team that went on to get stomped by Marshall in the GMAC Bowl knocking off a Seminole team that would go on to lose four more times is still one of the most cherished memories the U of L faithful have.
Louisville fans had been waiting forever for a night like the one 12 years ago, but they've been waiting even longer for what's going to happen tonight.
If the 2002 game was U of L's "we exist" moment, tonight is Cardinal football officially taking its permanent spot at the grown-ups table. Sure Louisville has been in a national title hunt, won two BCS games and been victorious in its last five games against the power trio from the state of Florida, but even the most mature kid in the world still has to spend Thanksgiving dinner with his youngster cousins until they get the nod from their parents.
No one is doubting the primary reason for the buzz and the giddiness that is dominating the city today. Florida State is THE name in college football at the moment. The defending national champions have won 23 straight games, have the reigning Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback, and are one of the most controversial teams in all of American sports. But there isn't anyone coming to PJCS tonight who is doing so just to see the show, and that wasn't the case 12 years ago.
This game has been circled on every U of L fan's calendar since the day the 2014 schedule was released, but not because it was the Cardinals' one chance to make a national splash. If Louisville doesn't take down Florida State tonight, the Noles will be back. It's not a one-shot deal anymore, it's two of college football's most successful programs over the last few years battling in an extremely hyped conference showdown.
Louisville football finally has its seat at the table, and tonight it has the chance to deliver the opening line it's been dreaming of forever.