The following column appears in this week's issue of The Voice-Tribune
Former Louisville coach Charlie Strong's honeymoon in Austin officially ended last weekend when he watched his Texas Longhorns get stomped on their home field by BYU, 41-7. Some UofL fans basked in the schadenfreude of the moment, others were saddened by it, many simply kept their eyes straightforward and their mouths closed. But this column isn't about any of that.
For our purposes, the significance of Strong's first loss at UT is that it came in a manner never seen during his four years at Louisville. Sure, the Cardinals lost six games in both 2010 and 2011, but only once -- a 20-3 defeat at Pittsburgh in Strong's first season -- was UofL defeated by double digits. Even when they were inexperienced and struggling, Strong's Louisville teams were always competitive.
The flip side of that coin, of course, is that winning big was also something of a rarity during the Strong era. A season ago, the fan base groaned as they were forced to sit through much closer than they should have been wins over the likes of Kentucky (27-13), Houston (20-13) and Memphis (24-17). In 2012, the eventual Sugar Bowl champion Cardinals won single score squeakers over a Florida International team that finished 3-9, and a Southern Miss squad that went 0-12.
"There were definitely times where you felt like you could just show up and you should win," UofL linebacker Lorenzo Mauldin admitted at the ACC Kickoff in July. "That's done. The ACC has a lot of talent in it, and I feel good to say that Louisville is in the ACC now. We finally get a chance to get recognition nationally because we've had plenty of times where they said that Louisville doesn't play anybody. So now we get a chance to play some nice powerhouses. You've got the FSUs, the Clemsons and the Notre Dames, and you get a chance to go out nationally and say we beat these teams."
Mauldin's giddiness over the three biggest names on Louisville's 2014 slate is understandable, but what about the NC States, the Boston Colleges and the Virginias?
This is the part of Louisville's move to the ACC that is the most overlooked, and the part that might be the biggest adjustment for both the players and the fan base. As of this weekend, the days of simply being able to show up and walk away with a win over a middle or bottom tier team from your own conference are over for the Cardinals.
Picked to finish last in the ACC's Coastal Division before the season, Virginia has lost 10 straight conference games, and had lost 10 straight games overall before last weekend's 45-13 win over Richmond. Still, there's a reason the Cardinals aren't more than a touchdown favorite as they prepare to hit the road for the first time.
Virginia has 19 players on its roster who were touted as four or five star prospects when they were coming out of high school. That's three more than Bobby Petrino has at his disposal. Talent typically shows its head if you give it enough time, and it would appear as though that's starting to happen in Charlottesville. The Cavaliers opened their season by taking No. 7 UCLA right down to the wire, and then bounced back from that 28-20 loss by turning Richmond over seven times and beating the Spiders by 32 points.
Any team, regardless of their record or national standing, can get up for the Clemsons and Florida States and Notre Dames of the world, but these are the types of games that Louisville has to make sure they're ready for if they want to eventually be in a position to compete for championships. Scott Stadium might not be Death Valley or The Big House, but it's a far cry from a 3/4 empty Raymond James Stadium (South Florida) or Lincoln Financial Field (Temple).
The first two weeks of the second Bobby Petrino era have been everything the fans hoped they'd be. There's been an enormous win over a powerhouse program in a national spotlight game, there's been a blowout of an overmatched opponent, and there have been points ... oh yes, there have been points. Still, there's so much we don't know about this team and this new era. The offense hasn't really been opened up, Will Gardner hasn't quite convinced anyone that he can be a star, DeVante Parker and Michael Dyer have yet to suit up for a game, and the Cards haven't played anywhere other than Papa John's Cardinal Stadium.
Virginia might not be the most well-regarded opponent left on UofL's slate, but they represent the start of something new: the week in, week out grind of big five conference football. The Miami game was an event, and the long build-up and the hype and the Monday kickoff all made it take on a very bowl game-esque feel. Then after what felt like only about 48 hours of recovery time, the Cards were taking the field inside PJCS again. Now it feels like we're finally settling into the season and life in the ACC, which means it's time to start seeing what this group is really all about.
Let the new life and the new grind begin.