On Monday night, most members of the Louisville football team and coaching staff watched as Clemson played Alabama in the same game the Cardinals had spent the bulk of their season dreaming about playing in. It was a realistic reverie for the bulk of the ride, as UofL climbed as high as No. 3 in the AP Poll and was No. 5 in the College Football Playoff Rankings before ending the season on a three-game slide that would leave the program with more questions than answers heading into the offseason.
As you're likely aware, Clemson toppled mighty Alabama in one of the most memorable national championship games of all-time, keeping the Crimson Tide from winning their fifth title in eight years, and bringing the crown back to South Carolina for the first time since 1981.
"This is a dream come true," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said after the game. "There's no doubt in my mind that the best is yet to come for us. I mean, we're going to continue to improve, continue to get better. Winning National Championships are hard. I mean, it's very, very difficult to do. It's been 35 years at Clemson. Like I said, in 2011, we had 30 years since we've been to the Orange Bowl. I'm like, listen, I don't know when we're getting back, but it ain't going to be 30 years, and now we've been to three Orange Bowls and won two of them. It won't be 35 years before Clemson will do this again."
Swinney's probably right. The Tigers lose many key parts to their high-octane offense, including quarterback Deshaun Watson, but they're also about to bring in yet another top five recruiting class. The only other ACC program currently on track to bring in a top five crop of freshmen? Florida State, which had been the last team to knock off an SEC school to win a national title, doing the trick in 2013 and then making it to the inaugural College Football Playoff a year later.
For Louisville, both Clemson and Florida State represent both the goal and the obstacle. The Cardinals can sit back and marvel at the fact that they destroyed the Orange Bowl champion Seminoles by 43 points and were six yards away from knocking off the eventual national champions on their home field, or they can feel the reality smack of just how little both of those accomplishments wound up meaning when all was said and done.
Louisville began the season ranked No. 19 in the Associated Press Top 25. Despite a 9-1 start, a 7-1 run in a conference that proved to be the best in America, and a Heisman Trophy winner playing the sport's most important position, the Cardinals finished the season with a ranking of No. 21. Rankings alone never tell the entire story of a season, but it's hard for fans (or players or coaches) to view a campaign as an overwhelming success when the resting spot winds up being less attractive than the starting one.
The game has changed for Louisville football, and everyone associated with the program needs to get used to that. My assumption is that the Cardinals aren't content with settling into an NC State-esque role of winning eight or nine games every season. If they want to approach the status that Clemson now has and that Florida State has known for decades, it's time to go to work. It's time to shed the mentality of being the plucky upstart that's just happy to be here and start taking the next steps in the evolution of the program.
The road to making that happen isn't getting any smoother.
"We play in the deepest, most competitive conference in the country," Sweeney said. "I think all you media folks need to change your stories. Look at the records, look at the bowl wins, look at the coaches, all of those things say that the ACC is the best conference in the country, and it's time for your stories to start reflecting that."
Swinney has a point. No conference produced a better bowl record than the ACC, and with new coaches like Justin Fuente (Virginia Tech) and Mark Richt (Miami) having such overwhelming success right out of the gate, it seems more likely than not that the league will find itself in the same position a few more times in the coming years.
It's time for Louisville to go to work.
A version of this column runs in the current issue of The Voice-Tribune