In three days, a multi-loss Louisville football team will travel to Tallahassee to face an undefeated Florida State team in a nationally televised early afternoon showdown. It's all exactly the same as the last time the Seminoles hosted the Cards, except that everything is different.
My memories of that game from Sept. 23, 2000 are sketchy at best. I was a high school sophomore who watched the game with above average interest from my living room couch. The Cards appeared as vastly overmatched as everyone expected heading into the game, and fell 31-0. It was about what I had expected all week, and so my Saturday went on as planned after the final whistle blew.
That last paragraph is about as accurate a summary there is regarding both how far Louisville football has come, and how far fans my age who were raised with a bit of a basketball first lean have come.
To be clear, I grew up with the same level of passion for Louisville football as I had for Cardinal basketball. It's just that the guys in red and black who played with the oblong ball didn't have the means to reciprocate that passion in the same way the ones who played with the roundball could. It's hard to give yourself wholly to something that you know can never do the same in return, and that was the case with U of L football in 1990s and early 2000s.
Louisville basketball could win national titles, it had won national titles, but despite the shot of life Howard Schnellenberher had injected into the program, the gridiron ceiling was never higher than a trip to the Liberty Bowl to freeze and watch the Cards face a team from the Mountain West. Given that Conference USA wanted to boot Louisville from the league entirely at the time Tom Jurich was hired, there were multiple years where even that felt like a pipedream.
This is why U of L fans were so hungry for that upset two years later in 2002 .... but even then there was still a sense of, "even if we get crushed, it will be cool to see Florida State in our stadium." The Seminoles were a show by themselves, the embodiment of something Louisville had never been and never could be. It's the reason why a Cardinal team that went on to get stomped by Marshall in the GMAC Bowl knocking off a Seminole team that would go on to lose four more times is still one of the most cherished memories the U of L faithful have.
The progress Louisville made between 2000 and 2002 was evident in that upset of FSU, but the more significant aspect of that rainy Thursday night was that it served as a sign of things to come.
If the 2002 game was U of L's "we exist" moment, Saturday has the potential to be the Cards' "we're here at the big boy table to stay" moment. Sure Louisville has been in a national title hunt, won two BCS games and been victorious in its last five games against the power trio from the state of Florida, but even the most mature kid in the world still has to spend Thanksgiving dinner with his youngster cousins until they get the nod from their parents.
A decade and-a-half removed from U of L's last trip to Tallahassee, Florida State remains one of the names in college football. The 2013 national champs have won 18 straight games at Doak Campbell Stadium and will take the field on Saturday riding a 27-game ACC win streak. Though the Seminole talent may not be as abundant as it has been in recent seasons, the title aspirations are.
This game has been thought about by everyone associated with Louisville football since that miserable Thursday night implosion nearly 12 months ago. If there was one saving grace from that evening, it was the knowledge that Florida State is not a one-shot deal anymore. The 'Noles were going to be back on the schedule in 2015, and then back at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium the year after that.
Still, playing high quality conference competition alone can only satisfy the fan appetite for so long. Eventually, U of L is going to have to cash in on one of these ACC spotlight games. I can't think of a better time -- for a number of reasons --than Saturday afternoon.
Louisville football finally has its seat at the table, on Saturday it gets a chance to dictate the conversation.