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For Louisville, beating Florida State would do wonders

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Since it was unofficially admitted as a member of the ACC in November of 2012, Louisville has been propped up fans and media alike as an Atlantic Division "rival" of league powerhouses Florida State and Clemson. The Cardinals were supposed to tip the balance of power in the conference even farther away from the Coastal Division, and set up an exciting year in, year out three-horse race in which UofL traded blows back-and-forth with the Seminoles and Tigers.

Here's the thing about rivalries: unless you're Wile E. Coyote or The Foot Clan, you actually need to win a couple of times in order to sustain your status as a capable foe.

On Saturday, Louisville will take its fourth shot at either Florida State or Clemson since joining the conference. UofL has been an underdog in each instance, and three times they've been facing an undefeated opponent ranked in the top 10. Of course there's one more consistency: the Cards have yet to emerge victorious over one of their bourgeoning rivals.

It's not like Bobby Petrino's teams haven't had their chances. There was the last-second goal line stand by Clemson in Death Valley a year ago, a crushing 3-point loss to the Tigers at home last month, and a blown 21-0 lead against Florida State almost exactly 12 months ago.

Each performance has garnered respect both nationally and from the opponents, but close calls do not a rivalry make.

The 2015 Cardinals are young, a fact that those who follow the program both closely and from a distance are well aware of. To illustrate that point, UofL ran 72 plays in its win over NC State two weeks ago, and at no time did they have fewer than six freshmen or redshirt freshmen on the field. Louisville also started a true freshman at each of the three positions that most agree are the most difficult to play on the offensive side of the ball -- quarterback and both tackles.

The logical response to seeing all that youth on the field at the same time is to think about the potential that exists for the 2016, 2017 and 2018 seasons. But life in a major conference is different than life in Conference USA or even the Big East was. The ongoing perception battle that exists in college football requires there to be major work done each and every season. That fact is especially true for a program like UofL, which is still a newborn in the world of "Power 5" conference football.

If Louisville wants to hear themselves bandied about again next summer as a tier one contender in the ACC, they probably need to confirm the suspicions of those who attached them with that same label before this season. With a 2-3 record and a golden opportunity against Clemson already squandered, there's no way to make that happen which doesn't involve leaving Tallahassee with a victory on Saturday.

"It's nice to have the young guys and try to build, but right now our important thing is to win every game that we play," Petrino said earlier this week. "They are fast and they play a lot of fast guys. They are one of the teams that we play that utilize a dime package and put six defensive backs in there. But we matched up with them pretty good last year with our speed. We're excited about it."

Even if there weren't major implications for Louisville's 2015 season or the Cardinals' place in the ACC food chain, there would still be plenty of reasons for everyone associated with UofL football to be excited about this one.

College football's regular season includes at least a few games on every team's schedule that are de facto bowl games in their own right. If you're a 3-4 team in the SEC that still has a couple of home games left against top 10 opponents, those are going to be huge events. A win isn't going to turn you into a national title contender, but your fans are still going to celebrate like you are. Records are inconsequential here; a win and you're champions for that day and that weekend.

Given Louisville's close calls against its ACC "rivals" so far, its slow start to 2015 and everything else that has been happening with the athletic program in recent weeks (Google it), I'm not sure there's been a better time for Cardinal players and fans to feel like champions for a weekend.

A version of this column appears in the current issue of The Voice Tribune