The narrative that has coursed through Louisville football ever since Jimbo Fisher cut the cameras (and Johnny Cage screamed "Where do you get these guys!?") halfway through the third quarter is that we find ourselves treading uncharted waters. It has led me to think about what exactly makes this so different than the last time we held this exact ranking, the last time we had a shot at something often-considered by many to be unattainable. Is it the simply the perception that the ACC is legit, and the Big East just simply wasn’t? Similarly, is it that, due to both the athletic department’s trajectory and happenstance (who knew Houston would be what they were when we hosted them in 2013), the schedule provides more opportunities?
These things are functions of Louisville’s athletic success and being at the right place at the right time. What I mean to say is that this path we’ve been on isn’t entirely "chartable." This means that yes, if someone is responsible for Louisville’s upward motion through conferences it is Tom Jurich, but the Big XII had to spurn us, and Maryland had to dip out to the B1G. That shouldn’t lessen how grateful we are to the individuals leading our athletics programs, all of whom are so exceptional at their jobs. It just increases our understanding of the big picture, and part of the big picture in life are unpredictable forces- forces of nature that cause you to react when they blow you wayward into these uncharted waters.
The aspect about the Louisville fanbase that makes these waters so foreign is the underdog mentality that is most front-and-center in the football program. It is the salt and vinegar kettle cooked chip on our shoulder that makes the upward trajectory of Louisville football so compelling. But now that we find ourselves on a stage that we envisioned but never actually stood upon, this underdog role is what now seems foreign to us. We go into the defending national runner-up’s stadium favored, with a higher ranking, with a player whose Heisman hype (and stats to back it up) dwarfs that of his counterpart’s- a counterpart whose own Heisman hype was greater in the preseason. We senselessly beat the other divisional power as they had never been beaten before, leading us to be the talk of college football- something that we really weren’t in 2006.
These waters feel so uncharted because Louisville football is being torn away from the role of the underdog. If Louisville’s name were replaced with [insert blue-blood here], these waters might be as familiar as a public pool’s urine-lukewarm shallow end. But for us there is this weird separation anxiety, where we look around to notice our environs have changed, the way others regard us has changed, but we still feel the same. Yes, the motivation of disrespect and disregard is a powerful tool that is deeply interwoven into American mythology- particularly sports. And in reality, it has proven itself occasionally effective and successful. But we as Louisville fans have to recognize both where we are and, based upon our reaction to that, who we accordingly must be. If we want to continue to be successful and dominate this new national stage, those of us who cling to the underdog identity and swoon to its thematic undertones will have to find a new fetish.
I’ll say it myself: that’s a bold claim. Obviously the fanbase’s attitude doesn’t directly determine success. But if we simply take a look at what is unfolding on the field in front of us, we can easily discern it is this year’s team who is pulling the boat into these uncharted waters, who is leading the fanbase in this direction. It is the attitude of this team- one that expects to win big and has proven it can win big- that spurs this somewhat painful separation from the underdog role. Nothing about this team screams underdog. The way they have dominated on both sides of the ball and (to a lesser degree) special teams is the most compelling evidence. We can pull any of Lamar Jackson’s bevy of stats, we can look at the team stats and game scores- we all know football is a game in which victory is measured by numbers. But football is a game played by human beings with hearts and souls- with some sort of impetus. The impetus of this team is that we are not an underdog. We are someone who is deserving, who belongs, who stands in its current place without question or skepticism.
This is not to say that we should be overconfident. As successful underdogs, we know the undesirable results that overconfidence begets on those who believe themselves to be innately superior by name and history. This Clemson team we are facing will boast quite possibly the best quarterback we will face all year, the largest front seven that we will encounter, and the most hostile environment we will experience. That alone should shirk any sense of overconfidence, as the defending national runners-up who return their star player warrants our full awareness and regard. I am fully confident that the short history of Louisville/Clemson will prevent our players from being remotely overconfident. If not that, then most definitely Coach Bobby Petrino will ensure this doesn’t happen.
If the underdog narrative is the only thing we can mold out of the small block of clay constituting the brief Louisville/Clemson series, then we are not trying hard enough. We are not trying to chart the waters we find ourselves in, but are wading there hopelessly expecting to be whisked back to familiar places. We have to recognize, as Dabo Swinney said in quasi-compound words, that our past two contests have been, "a couple of knock-down-drag-outs." If that is our recent history, then there is no way that we enter this game feeling like we are an unheeded, neglected underdog- no matter what pundits predict or expect. This change, this paradigm shift is why we have followed Louisville football from irrelevance to significance. This is why we watch, this is why we emotionally invest, this is why we pay Time Warner and LG&E (by association, but to a lesser degree) what we do.
This is what we are now, everyone. Embrace it.