This weekend, the Louisville football team will travel to Atlanta to face a top 10 Auburn team that is the preseason pick to win the Southeastern Conference. You know this because we've been counting down the days to this one since what feels like early April.
Now season-openers are always exciting, and season-openers against big name programs are next-level exciting, but I think I speak for all of us when I say that there's something a little bit different about this game and this day. The countdown to kickoff this summer has been more than just a still march to a big contest and a highly anticipated season, it's been ripe with the reinforcement that Louisville is now officially playing with the big boys.
Fifteen years ago, Cardinal fans were still ecstatic over the recent opening of the 42,000-seat Papa John'a Cardinal Stadium and counting down the days until the team's annual showdown with Conference USA rival Southern Mississippi. Meanwhile, the powers that be at UofL were desperately trying (with little success) to get some of the sport's most powerful programs to agree to play home-and-home series.
Fast forward to last week when UofL athletic director Tom Jurich announced the plans for a stadium expansion that will eventually allow around 65,000 Cardinal fans to watch the red and black play at home. In addition to this Saturday's game against Auburn, Louisville has set season-openers for the future against Purdue in Indianapolis (2017), against Alabama in Orlando (2018), and against Notre Dame at home (2019).
A Cardinal football fan from 1993 reading that last paragraph would probably look something like an early 19th century intellectual experiencing electricity: they could have imagined it, but being faced directly with its reality would still be staggering.
The best part about the move to the ACC from a football standpoint was never the potential access to the new playoff or the promise of more money, it was the guarantee that every single season Louisville would have a chance. A chance to play and defeat some of the biggest names in college football, a chance to earn a top 10 national ranking without people constantly questioning its validity, and a chance to win a major conference championship. There would be no repeat of 2013, when the Cards' schedule knocked them out of the national championship race before a single snap was ever taken.
Perception trumps reality in college football more than it does in any other major American sport, and the current perception -- regardless of how many times it's disproven on the field -- is that if you play and are at least mildly competitive in a major conference, you are a much better program than ones which dominate lesser leagues. The company you keep is extremely important, and Louisville's new ACC brethren have certainly played a large role in UofL's ability to get teams like Auburn and Alabama on the schedule, as well as it's ability to expand Papa John's Cardinal Stadium.
Louisville is now a fully initiated member of the college football cool kids table, but the question now is how close to the head of that table are they allowed to sit. This is why I think 2015 is such an important season for the program.
Look at how quickly TCU has been embraced as a national powerhouse. All it took was a couple of years of success in the Big 12 to finally verify the decades of success the program had enjoyed in lesser conferences. Now, you almost forget that the Frogs were ever a member of Conference USA or the old WAC. Had last season followed in the footsteps of the 7-6 campaign in 2012 and the 4-8 effort in 2013, however, the narrative would still be "look what happens when you start playing with the grown-ups."
U of L isn't your average program making the leap from the mid-major ranks. The Cardinals beat Alabama in the 1991 Fiesta Bowl and claimed a pair of BCS bowl victories after that. The program had the advantage of being something of a known commodity when it made its jump in class, so there wasn't an extraordinary amount of surprise when Louisville went 9-3 in year one of life in the ACC.
Back in 2007, Stewart Mandel (then with Sports Illustrated) attempted to lay out what he called a "college football pecking order." He lumped programs into groups of Kings, Barons, Knights and Peasants. There was only one program in the country which didn't receive a group assignment.
"There is one school intentionally missing from the list, and that's because I have no idea where to put it: Louisville," Mandel wrote. "History-wise, the Cardinals are peasants, but the program has completely reinvented itself over the past decade and now gets mentioned with the kings and barons. For now, we'll just say: TBD."
The next three seasons did not go according to plan, and the Cardinals were thrown into the bottom rung of the hierarchy when Mandel re-visited the exercise five years later.
I'm not saying that Louisville sits in exactly the same place today that it did eight years ago, but there is the same lack of clarity surrounding the Cardinals' place in the college football world. For a program that only has a few decades of success to fall back on, I think that's a good thing.
U of L needs to prove not only that it belongs, but that it belongs within shouting distance of the top ... and that it has plans to continue to climbing. That new march begins Saturday in Atlanta. Of course with any potential reward there is a potential risk, and Louisville's big chance against the top 10 Tigers goes hand-in-hand with the chance that it might wind up being beaten in front of a large national audience on CBS.
When the Cardinals take the field inside the Georgia Dome, they will be doing so as double digit underdogs for the first time in 27 games. The last time it happened? The 2013 Sugar Bowl, when Louisville was a two-touchdown dog against another SEC powerhouse, Florida. I don't need to tell you how that played out.
For as long as I can remember, all anyone associated with Louisville football has wanted is a shot. The program couldn't get into a top-tier conference because of its lack of on-field success, and then once that success came, it couldn't get any national powerhouse programs to agree to play. Now, the Cardinals have both the conference and the opponents they've always wanted.
You can't hit a home run unless you swing big, and you can't swing big unless someone's willing to pitch to you. Now, Louisville has its desired bat and a pitcher who doesn't have the luxury of being able to pitch around them. Expect the Cards to take a mighty hack this weekend.