"This isn't fun."
It wasn't the first time I'd heard those three words last fall, but it was the time I agreed with them the most.
Louisville was 8-1, hosting a Saturday night conference game in mid-November, and about to say goodbye to three first round draft picks including a beloved quarterback who had already established himself as one of the best to ever do it at UofL. All of those things are supposed to add up to fun, but there we were, enjoying life as much as a 13-year-old boy dragged to the opera by his parents.
The hours leading up to Louisville's Nov. 16 game against Houston were the low point of the 2013 season for me. Central Florida had all but locked up the American Athletic Conference's BCS bid, and a win over the Cougars wasn't going to do anything to alter the majority mindset that the Cardinals had been given just one shot to notch a "good" regular season victory, and they had already blown it. The players were saying all the right things, but their body language oozed the disappointment they tried to hide. People were tailgating, but there was no energy. Everyone involved seemed to be ready for the whole thing to be over -- the game, the season, life in a subpar conference; all of it.
"This isn't a fun," a friend finally said. "I would much rather play an elite schedule and go 6-6 than have another 11-1 season with no excitement. Every week it feels like we have nothing to gain. I'm not sure I've ever experienced anything more frustrating."
No one disagreed, not even with the sentiment that a 6-6 season could somehow be more fulfilling than an 11-1 one.
For as long as I can remember, all Louisville football fans have wanted is a shot. The program couldn't get into a top-tier conference, and once it became a legitimate national player, it couldn't get any perennial powerhouse teams on the schedule. This was frustrating, especially in years where UofL fans knew they had a team that could compete with anyone.
To the credit of the Louisville football program, it has always made the most of its rare opportunities. From the 1991 Fiesta Bowl throttling of Alabama to the 2002 stunning upset of Florida State, and then of course the 2013 Sugar Bowl win over Florida. The Cards have made a habit of stepping up when the spotlight has been the brightest, and in a weird way, that has almost made the lack of chances and the lack of respect that have plagued the program over the last two or three decades even more irritating.
The best part about the move to the ACC from a football standpoint was never the potential access to the new playoff or the promise of more money, it was the guarantee that every single season Louisville would have a chance. A chance to play and defeat some of the biggest names in college football, a chance to earn a top 10 national ranking without people constantly questioning its validity, and a chance to win a major conference championship.
Of course with any potential reward there is a potential risk, and Louisville's big chance in the ACC goes hand-in-hand with the chance that it might wind up being embarrassed.
When the Cardinals travel to South Carolina this weekend to face Clemson, they will be doing so as underdogs (double digit ones) for the first time in 19 games. The last time UofL took the field and wasn't favored to win? That 2013 Sugar Bowl stunner against Florida.
Death Valley, the home of the Tigers, is commonly referred to as one of the toughest places to play in college football. It's also the primary reason why Oct. 11 was one of the dates that instantly jumped out at Cardinal fans when they got their first look at the 2014 schedule.
"This is one of those games where you first looked at the schedule and you said, 'hey we get to go play in Death Valley,'" head coach Bobby Petrino said this week. "These are the type of games that the players we recruit and the guys that are here came here to play in. We've gotta go in and enjoy it. This is one of the most exciting things about being in the ACC -- some of the venues that we get to go play at."
Clemson enters the game ranked 25th in the country, but they've looked like a different team since settling on true freshman DeShaun Watson at quarterback. The Tigers dropped 50 points against North Carolina two weeks ago in Watson's first start, and then followed that up with a 41-0 drubbing of NC State last weekend. The performance of the freshman in those games has some members of the media already referring to him as the potential Heisman Trophy favorite for the 2015 season.
Suffice it to say, a UofL team which has struggled to put points on the board so far this season appears to be facing a pretty severe uphill battle. That's not something these players are used to.
Perhaps more impressive than Louisville's streak of consecutive games as a favorite is the fact that the Cardinals have not lost a game as an underdog since the 2011 Belk Bowl. It's a role that has always suited UofL better than conference overlord, and one which they'll finally get to reassume on Saturday.
In recent weeks, Louisville hasn't quite looked like a team fully prepared for its first big moment in the national spotlight. Unfortunately, that's not going to stop it from coming this weekend.
The start of a second half of the season loaded with chances is now just a handful of days away. That's a little bit scary, but it's certainly more fun than the alternative.
The column above appears in this week's issue of The Voice-Tribune