"This isn't fun."
It wasn't the first time I'd heard those three words during the 2013 Louisville football season, but it was the time I agreed with them the most.
The Cardinals were 8-1, hosting a Saturday night conference game in mid-November, and about to say goodbye to three first round draft picks including a beloved quarterback who had already established himself as one of the best to ever do it at UofL. All of those things are supposed to add up to fun, but there we were, enjoying life as much as a 13-year-old boy dragged to the opera by his parents.
The hours leading up to Louisville's Nov. 16 game against Houston were the low point of the 2013 season for me and for a number of other folks who, by now, may have forgotten the game took place at all.
Before getting out of our car to tailgate, myself and several others had stayed in our cars to listen to the end of the Central Florida-Temple game. This was life in 2013.
Louisville desperately needed the Knights to drop a game in order for the Cardinals to keep their BCS hopes alive, and after flirting with defeat a number of times in the preceding weeks, it looked like this was finally going to be the night. Instead, a miracle comeback, a miracle catch, a miracle turnover and a last second field goal resulted in what was essentially the death blow to UofL's hopes of playing in anything bigger than the Russell Athletic Bowl.
And so, we exited our cars and prepared to go through the motions of tailgating for a Saturday night home game, something Cardinal fans had been clamoring for forever, but suddenly seemed like they could take or leave.
A win over the Cougars that Saturday night wasn't going to do anything to alter the majority mindset that the Cards had been given just one shot to notch a "good" regular season victory, and they had already blown it. The players were saying all the right things, but their body language oozed the disappointment they tried to hide. People were tailgating, but there was no energy. Everyone involved seemed to be ready for the whole thing to be over -- the game, the season, life in a subpar conference; all of it.
"This isn't a fun," a friend finally said. "I'd much rather play an elite schedule and go 6-6 than have another 11-1 season with no excitement. Every week it feels like we have nothing to gain. I'm not sure I've ever experienced anything more frustrating."
No one disagreed, not even with the sentiment that a 6-6 season could somehow be more fulfilling than an 11-1 one.
The game itself did nothing to change that mindset. After marching down the field on their first drive to take a quick 7-0 lead, Louisville seemed to employ a "Prevent" gameplan on both sides of the ball. The result was a 20-13 win over an average opponent that felt almost more like a chore than a privilege to sit through.
It wasn't fun, and the worst part was the knowledge that with that team and with that record, it should have been.
I've said it before and I'll say it again, the best part about the move to the ACC has always been the total elimination of something like the 2013 season happening again -- a season where Louisville could go 12-1 and everything could still feel unsatisfying somehow. Now, every season the Cards at least 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.
When Louisville takes the field against Houston for the first time since that chilly November night, we should all remember how thankful we are for both where the program has gone since that game 22 months ago, and where the program will continue to go in the months and years after Saturday's.