In non-professional sports cities like Louisville where there is a legitimate offseason, the game-less summer months serve as an annual host for endless debates of historical bests, worsts and greatest. These discussions succeed in passing the time, but rarely result in anything resembling a conclusion. This summer, though, there is a glaring exception.
In one month, the Louisville football team will play the most important season-opening game in program history. I don't think this assertion can be disputed.
For the past two decades -- an era which accounts for the bulk of Cardinal football's national relevance -- UofL has opened its season against either a Kentucky squad that wasn't particularly well thought of, or a completely overmatched team that walked into Papa John's Cardinal Stadium as a double-digit underdog. Of those games, only the 2008 opener against the Wildcats in which Steve Kragthorpe was attempting to prove to the Cardinal fan base that his debut season was a fluke (it didn't go well) approaches this year's Labor Day showdown with The U in terms of significance.
The first reason for this, as first reasons tend to be, is the most obvious: if it wants to have an overwhelmingly successful 2014 season, Louisville pretty much has to defeat the Hurricanes.
Playing in the same division as Florida State and Clemson is going to make it pretty difficult for Cardinal fans to conjure up any massive dreams of playing in December's ACC championship game. Start the season with a loss to Miami, and those dreams are dashed before the faithful in The Ville even get a chance to try.
For all the good things about UofL's upgrade in schedule strength, there's also a realization coming that the safety net which was provided by both the Big East and the AAC is no longer in place. If you want to win double-digit games and play in a first or second tier bowl, you can no longer afford to drop "coin flip" games at home. The days of having a bumper to save a gutter ball like the one the Cards served up with their second half performance against Central Florida a season ago are gone.
The second reason revolves around Louisville's new/old head coach, whom you may have heard talked about at some point this summer.
It's impossible to ignore the fact that there is faction of Cardinal fans who weren't especially thrilled with the re-hiring of Bobby Petrino. It's equally impossible to ignore that there is an even larger faction that was only okay with the move because it was packaged with a promise of large win totals and large numbers on the scoreboard
These two groups don't become majority detractors if Louisville drops the first game of the second Petrino era, but they certainly start grumbling loud enough to be heard. With the schedule being set up the way it is, Petrino likely wouldn't have a chance to silence his critics and restore the fan base's collective excitement level to its current state until the second weekend of October.
More important than fan morale, however, is Petrino having the full trust of his players. The vast majority of these guys came to Louisville primarily because they wanted to play for Charlie Strong. That being the case, it's been a surprisingly smooth transition from that regime to an entirely new one. The primary reason for that, according to several UofL players, is a belief that they can win right away with Petrino at the helm. There's a very important trust in place right now that would be shaken up a bit by a defeat on Sept. 1.
The final reason why Louisville's 2014 opener is so crucial might seem like the most frivolous, but it relates to a battle UofL fans have been fighting for pretty much forever.
The relationship between Louisville football and national perception has always been a strained one, and that theme has more or less dominated the majority of seasons over the past decade. Cardinal fans have touted their program's pristine record, two BCS wins and convincing victories over perennial powerhouses like Florida and Miami. Critics, meanwhile, have never backed down from their position that UofL couldn't win consistently in a big five conference, and written off their bowl triumphs as fluke wins against disinterested opponents.
It's silly to look at one season as a referendum on a debate that has been stretched through multiple decades, but a lot of people are going to view Louisville's 2014 campaign in precisely that light. If the Cards stumble out of the gate and wind up losing four or five times in ACC play this fall, rival fans and members of the national media alike are going to point to the disappointing season as evidence that everything UofL has accomplished in its modern era has been a fluke. It would be wrong and terribly short-sighted, but there's no question that it would happen ... and that it would be extremely frustrating.
Early predictions and betting lines for the game have been all over the place, but there's one thing pretty much everyone agrees on: just about the entire sports world will be watching Louisville-Miami on Labor Day night.
There is one non-NFL game a year that gets the Monday Night Football treatment from ESPN, and this year the Cardinals will be a participant. It's the team equivalent of being a corner in man coverage with no help coming over the top. Make a big time play, and everyone with eyes on the field is going to be singing your praises. Take a bad step and get burned? Well, everybody's going to see that too.
This summer has been all about excitement and positive vibes for UofL athletics, but Cardinal fans are about to find out firsthand that potential risk grows right alongside potential reward. An opening game is never going to entirely make or break one season, but the stakes are going to be awfully high when Louisville takes the field for the first time on Sept. 1. Certainly higher than they've ever been before on week one.
An abbreviated version of this column appears in this week's edition of The Voice-Tribune