When Louisville last went to the Belk Bowl, it was at the beginning of one of the football program's finest eras with Charlie Strong and Teddy Bridgewater together. The moment was so powerful that it even moved one Louisville blogger to write a loving memoir earlier this year. 2011 was year two for Strong and Bridgewater's maiden voyage. We all we remember what followed in the coming seasons.
This time around, Louisville is at another beginning of sorts. The Cards just finished their first season in the ACC under old/new head coach Bobby Petrino in the first year post-Strong/Bridgewater. Even with some considerable changes, the early returns have been positive on the whole as Petrino and company settle into their new league with new players.
Yet for all that has been different about this season, there are still pivotal parts of past success that have also been cornerstones of yet another new beginning for Louisville in 2014. In fact, they were freshmen when the Cardinals made their first trek to the Belk Bowl three years ago.
There are lots of storylines that will be fun to watch for as Louisville takes on Georgia, but below are four important ones. For Louisville, it has to start with the group of seniors who will play their last game as a Cardinal where they played their first bowl game: at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.
1. A transformative senior class gets its curtain call
Lorenzo Mauldin, DeVante Parker, Jamon Brown, Dominique Brown... The list goes on. This is also the senior class that Teddy Bridgewater and Calvin Pryor would have been a part of, which is pretty incredible to sit back and think about. More than any other, this class has epitomized the resurrection of Louisville football, and fans won't forget them anytime soon. You can add Gerod Holliman to this list as well, as he will all but certainly be headed for the NFL Draft as a Junior after this game.
We've said this countless other times here, but thanks are due again and again to this group of young men. They've left a mark at Louisville and will be welcomed back with open arms well after their days as student-athletes are over.
2. Todd Grantham faces off against his former boss
This is pretty self explanatory, but Louisville defensive coordinator Todd Grantham will be looking to shut down the same offense he had to go against in practice every day last season as a member of the Georgia staff. There's obviously two ways to look at this, but for the purpose of optimism, we'll roll with the assumption that being familiar with the Bulldog offense will benefit Louisville. Yes, it's only fair to acknowledge that Mark Richt and company will probably be familiar with Grantham's schemes as well. Either way you look at it, this factor should be fun to follow as the game goes on.
For what it's worth, Grantham brings with him a slightly better defense statistically than his former team. The Cardinals are allowing 293 total yards per game (sixth best in the country) and only 93.7 rushing yards per game (second best). Georgia's 334 total yards allowed per game are good for 18th best nationwide, but their 158 yards allowed per game through the air are the second fewest in the nation. All told, Louisville's 20.5 points allowed per game are a smidge better than Georgia's 21.3. Both are top-25 defenses in that category.
3. Kyle Bolin and Reggie Bonnafon get to make their final cases of 2014
Petrino said that both Bolin and Bonnafon will play without revealing a starter. He also pointed out that Louisville will obviously ride the hot hand if one emerges. Given the fact that his Cardinal debut is the freshest performance in the minds of fans, a start from Bolin would certainly be met with some excitement. With that said, Bonnafon does have a bit more game experience despite being a year younger than Bolin, so maybe that will carry weight against a particularly stingy Georgia pass defense.
Who plays when and how much they play, particularly if things don't get off to a hot start in the passing game, could end up becoming the story of the game for Louisville. Hopefully for the Cards, the run game will get started early to help the young quarterbacks. The good news here is that Georgia isn't anywhere near as stout against the run as they are the pass, allowing over 175 yards per game on the ground (78th in the country).
A good game from either quarterback could give one a bit of a lead over the field as the team heads to the offseason and into Spring practices. Of course, the position will still likely be up in the air at least until next Spring and perhaps beyond.
4. Louisville gets a shot at beating another quality SEC team in a bowl game
The 2013 Sugar Bowl against #3 Florida marks the last time Louisville found themselves against an SEC team ranked higher than them in a bowl game. That contest went fairly well for the good guys, and this year's seniors certainly have fond memories of that night in New Orleans. They'll have a chance to go out as victors over the mighty SEC again, as Georgia enters the game ranked 13th in all three major lists (CFP, AP, USA Today).
It was a bit shocking to end up in the Belk Bowl again after this season, but it's hard to argue with the matchup that Louisville was handed. Here's to hoping the seniors are sent off with one final signature victory to add to their impressive college resumes. Finally, cheers to all of the Louisville fans who have made their way to Charlotte to support the team. Look forward to seeing you all on TV. Let's have some fun.