Louisville football has won 32 games over the last three years, and the expectations for the program should be at an all-time high. Papa John's Cardinal Stadium has been expanded and will now be expanded again. The stadium now has an academic center attached that will allow players to spend even more time at the stadium. Louisville’s head coach and coordinators are some of the highest paid in the ACC and aren’t ranked too badly nationally. Louisville had 10 players drafted in the 2015 NFL draft (one less than FSU which led the country with 11) as well as 6 others who were signed to free agent contracts. The team is led by a coach that many believe is one of the top offensive minds in college football.
The move to the ACC has upped the competition and helped recruiting bounce back from a somewhat disappointing three years (The 2012-2014 classes all finished or would have ranked in the bottom half of the ACC). Louisville also has players who are making a name for themselves in the NFL. Teddy Bridgewater and Preston Brown were two of the best rookies in the league last year and it has actually become completely normal to turn on a preseason game this year and have multiple Louisville players on the field.
All of the above should really answer the question of "why should the expectations be raised," but let’s dig in.
Louisville’s head coach and coordinators are all highly regarded throughout college football
Bobby Petrino has been an offensive guru for years, putting up gaudy offensive numbers and leaving defensive coordinators scratching their heads as he attacks every weakness they have. He has gone from being a coordinator to an NFL head coach, and has had success on the field at every position he’s held at the college level.
Todd Grantham has an NFL pedigree and has put a good number of players into that league. Grantham’s players have had some of the most impressive statistical numbers in recent memory, including Gerod Holliman’s 14 interceptions last year. The Oakland Raiders courting him this offseason shows how respected he is. Only a few defensive coordinators in college football have richer contracts, and the 2014 season could be a glimpse into what we can routinely expect from Grantham’s units.
Garrick McGee tends to be the guy people overlook. That should be expected when you have a head coach who is known for his offensive mind. That didn’t stop Bob Stoops and Oklahoma from requesting an interview for their open offensive coordinator spot last January. McGee doesn’t get much fanfare, but if you think Petrino has added the pistol and read option aspects we’ve seen on his own, you’re being naïve. McGee might not have the pedigree of the other two, but assistant coaches don’t get head coaching jobs just because.
The talent level at Louisville has been absolutely exceptional over the last handful of years
I watched the 2015 NFL Draft in awe. Player after player being drafted and the Louisville program receiving great praise from NFL commentators. I’m not big of the draft being the barometer for a program, but it does say something about the talent you’re bringing to your school as well as the coaching they’re receiving. Louisville has been able to show that over the last few years.
U of L has had 14 players drafted in the last two years and three more made rosters last season. Throw in Bilal Powell, who was recruited by Steve Kragthorpe, and you’re looking at a sizeable amount of players who have been recently placed into the NFL by Louisville. Teddy Bridgewater might be the best player to ever put on a Louisville uniform and he led his team to what might be the best season ever topped off by what might be the biggest win ever in the Sugar Bowl. DeVante Parker spent four years in Louisville making outstanding plays and dominating some really high level secondary players. Preston Brown, Gerod Holliman, Lorenzo Mauldin, James Burgess, Sheldon Rankins, Calvin Pryor, Charles Gaines, Hakeem Smith, Brandon Dunn, Keith Kelsey, and Marcus Smith led some of the best defenses this school has ever seen, and as we've all heard, the 2015 defense could be better than all of them.
The program has fully bought into the mindset that we are a sleeping giant
Years ago, teams would break contracts just to get out of playing Louisville. No one wanted to schedule the non-BCS school that could actually embarrass them. That has been completely flipped on its head with the move to the ACC. Auburn and Alabama are now the headliners of the schedule in coming years. That is Alabama and Auburn that both have recent national championships. That’s Alabama and Auburn that hail from the same conference as Florida. Florida being the team that has the biggest BCS bowl upset history on its record thanks to Louisville.
The program is now going after these big games and they’re getting them. It wasn’t long ago that Oregon State and Kansas State (during the awful Ron Prince years) were huge games on the schedule. Tom Jurich has bought into Petrino’s second stint and he’s shown the fans and the country that he feels his football program is one of the best. He’s also made the investment to add seats to the stadium. We all remember what it was like seeing empty seats when we were a part of the Big East and the AAC. Even with all of the talented players listed above and a program that was consistently ranked in the top 25, the stands had swaths of seats that were left empty throughout the game.
With the move to the ACC the opportunities to play and beat big time programs is already built into the schedule. FSU has to come to PJCS every other year and a win wouldn't be grounds for the fans to rush the field. Louisville is almost guaranteed to have multiple ranked teams on their schedule each year. They also won't be underdogs in each of them. This program will have all of the amenities that top-tier programs tout to recruits and reporters. It also now has a campus that matches the athletic accomplishments. It isn't a matter of if anymore, it's when.
New coach, new conference, still ended up with 9 wins
Even though Louisville’s record is deceiving in both directions (close losses as well as close wins), it is extremely impressive that the team finished with 9 wins considering they were playing with a new coach and in a new conference. Even though Charlie Strong left the program in fantastic shape, it isn’t easy at all to take a program into a new league that’s home to the defending national champions. Throw in Notre Dame and Clemson on the road, and the 2014 season was a major challenge for this team. They answered that bell pretty well.
With such a successful first season in the ACC, why shouldn’t we expect better in the coming years? The defensive talent that Charlie Strong molded is still around and with guys like Jawon Pass committing to play for Petrino and McGee’s offense, the expectations for this program should be higher than they have ever been. The program is in a conference that has shown it can win the national championship. It has been proven that the school can recruit NFL talent. The athletic director and the fans have gotten completely behind the team.
The word "elite" gets thrown around way too much. Louisville is nowhere near being a historically elite program, but there are plenty of "non-elite" programs (TCU and Baylor come to mind) that compete at such a level that conference (and national) titles are possible.
Tom Jurich and the Louisville athletic program are adding 10,000 seats to PJCS
Charlie Strong made it clear that the large amount of empty seats at PJCS didn’t sit well with him during his stint here. I never faulted him for this personally because it bothered me as a fan as well. Some of the best players to ever put on a Cardinal uniform were out there winning almost every game and they couldn’t get the stadium to fill up or stay full for a complete game. However, I think that if Strong stuck around he would’ve seen the excitement that the move to the ACC brought.
Petrino has the luxury of coupling that excitement with the fan’s love of his offensive system. When you put both of those together it totally makes sense for Jurich to expand the stadium to allow more fans to be in the stands when the program takes that next step.
It’s the logical step to expand your stadium when you can add club seats and boxes that will generate more revenue for your program. Louisville is a city that has a lot of folks and a lot of companies that will take full advantage of anything that allows them to wine and dine with other people who have the money and connections. It’s a gamble to add so many seats with attendance down around the entire country, but the move shows exactly where Jurich sees this program, and I think fans should follow suit. You don’t add more seats if you don’t think they can, will, and should be filled.
When it comes down to it, Louisville is no longer a program that should be okay with 8 wins. This program should be at the point where the road may still go through Clemson and FSU to reach the conference championship, but they shouldn’t be seen as roadblocks.
The time of Louisville being the perpetual underdog has come and gone. Louisville is nowhere near where they were a decade ago when beating a traditional power was monumental. Now we beat a team like Notre Dame on the road and it’s barely an upset in the public’s eyes. That’s the program that Louisville has become, and we should act accordingly.