The dreams of owning a puppy always come with the same delightful visuals: playful bounding around the backyard, sweet licks to the face, and a loving companion to cuddle up with on the couch. Everyone thinks they're going to be the first owner in pet history who never has to clean up behind their dog, take it for a walk when it's nasty outside, or come home to find a precious possession eviscerated with just one suspect in sight.
Louisville fans got the puppy they'd always dreamed of when the Cardinals officially became members of the ACC on July 1. Now, they're getting their first lesson in the responsibility that's buried below all that initial excitement.
Virginia entered last Saturday's game against UofL riding a 10-game ACC losing streak, and an 11-game losing streak against FBS opponents. They were picked to finish last in the ACC's Coastal Division before the season, and head coach Mike London was widely regarded as a man sitting on one of the hottest seats in the country.
Basically, this was a game that you'd expect a ranked Louisville team coming off of back-to-back double digit win seasons to prevail in. Thanks to turnovers, poor play from the offensive line and the quarterback position, a number of untimely penalties, and a disastrous muffed punt in the game's final minutes, that did not happen.
Here's the thing about Virginia, though: they're not the "bad" team that Louisville fans (and players, and coaches, and administrators) are used to seeing. The Cavaliers have 19 players on their roster who came out of high school as four or five star recruits. That's three more than UofL. UVA also has a defensive line loaded with a handful of names who might eventually receive money in exchange for playing the game. Both U of L's front five and the two Cardinal quarterbacks who took snaps on Saturday would probably tell you today that those guys should already be receiving some sort of bonus.
Playing poorly against a seemingly inferior opponent isn't an affliction foreign to Louisville football. Last year's 12-1 squad won single touchdown games over the lowly duo of Memphis and Houston. The Sugar Bowl champions from 2012 had to squeak out a pair of non-conference wins over miserable Florida International and Southern Mississippi teams. Even Bobby Petrino's best Cardinal teams threw out the occasional clunker in a game the fans thought they would dominate. In 2004, the eventual 12-1 Liberty Bowl champs squeaked out a 56-49 thriller over Memphis. Two years later, the Cards kept their national title hopes alive with an interception in the endzone on the game's final play against a very average Cincinnati team.
The difference between all of those games and the one UofL fans took in on Saturday? The Cardinals won.
This is life in the ACC now. Games against the middle and bottom tier opponents from your conference are no longer trips to face 2-7 Temple or 3-8 Memphis teams whose players are just as ready for basketball season as their fans. Those games are now all going to be like Saturday's, where the opposing roster is filled with enough talent to beat you if you do things like turn the ball over four times and have two huge plays negated by unnecessary penalties.
You want the puppy, you have to be willing to clean up after the accidents.
The good news for UofL is that the cleanup effort in this case appears to be manageable. The Cards will travel to Miami on Saturday to face a Florida International team that they beat by 72 a year ago, and then return home to host a Wake Forest squad that would seem to be easily the worst in the ACC. That one, two "punch" is the best possible remedy for an ailing Louisville squad that still has far more questions than answers three weeks into the 2014 season.
With Clemson, Notre Dame and Florida State all sitting there, everyone already knew that the second half of UofL's schedule was loaded. But after watching Boston College take on USC and thump the ninth-ranked Trojans, NC State hammer former conference mate South Florida, and Kentucky nearly knock off Florida in The Swamp, even those secondary games in October and November are looking a little daunting.
Louisville has to treat these next two weeks as a sort of preseason within the season. By that I don't mean that they need to approach the games as if they don't matter, I just mean that this is the time where things need to be figured out and set in stone. If Will Gardner is going to be the guy at quarterback, he needs to prove it these next two Saturdays. If Reggie Bonnafon is going to play the position as well, you need to figure out when and how to use him these next two Saturdays. If there's still some shaking up to be done on the offensive line, it needs to be settled after these next two Saturdays.
The honeymoon era of the ACC was all fun and romantic, but reality has arrived. If the Cards don't make the necessary jump between now and when the calendar flips to October, there could be a lot more accidents to clean up like the one we saw at Virginia.
The previous column appears in this week's issue of The Voice-Tribune