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Louisville football’s biggest problem isn’t where it is, it’s where it’s going

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A midway through 2018 state of the program address.

Georgia Tech v Louisville Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

When it comes to Louisville football, the easiest thing in the world to do right now is to pile on. With any ambiguity about what the 2018 season is or could be having been completely obliterated by Friday night’s disaster, any written or voiced (or shouted) declaration that “Louisville sucks! I’m mad! You should be mad!” is sure to be met with universal praise.

That isn’t my intention here. Although I also don’t disagree with the stripped down pronouncement either.

One of the recurring topics of discussion in the days leading up to last Friday’s game was a question over who the contest was more important for: Paul Johnson or Bobby Petrino. I was surprised at how easily the media members from Atlanta and Louisville reached the conclusion that the game was more crucial for Petrino. I was further surprised to hear the people who cover Georgia Tech report that while there was a “little unrest” about the job Johnson was doing with the Yellow Jackets, he was still in a place professionally that was more or less secure.

Even with its blowout win at Cardinal Stadium, Georgia Tech is just 3-3 overall and could very easily miss out on a bowl game this December. If that happens, it’ll be the third time in the last four years that the Jackets haven’t gone bowling. Sure, Tech has had some decent seasons to counteract the recent dip in production, but this is still a program that has never lost fewer than three games in Johnson’s 11 years on the job. And yet, it seems like this mixed bag of production has been enough to appease a healthy chunk of Johnson’s fan base.

With the full knowledge of the avalanche of irony that comes with this statement being made just three days after Friday night’s game, allow me to say this: I don’t want to be Georgia Tech.

Whenever Louisville football stumbles and fans begin to express a degree of unhappiness, there is a portion of our fan base that retreats to the same safe house and lobs the same lines that I’ve heard since I was a teenager (which was the first period of time Cardinal football started to have actual expectations).

Our fans are so spoiled now.

Let’s not forget that we used to play in a Minor League baseball stadium with maybe 5,000 people in attendance.

Louisville almost quit football entirely at multiple points during the ‘70s and ‘80s.

Lots of programs would kill to have seven or eight win seasons almost every year.

We’re not Ohio State or Alabama, I don’t know how some of our fans don’t get that.

None of these notions are off-base, but the accuracy of the statements isn’t the issue. The issue is that at the slightest hint of controversy, some Louisville fans are all too eager to run and hide behind a group of statements whose relevance to the program should have worn out a while ago.

Don’t get me wrong, juxtaposing where the program is (in the ACC, with state of the art facilities and a relatively rich recent history) with where it was (getting its ass beat with regularity in front of a smattering of fans at Old Cardinal Stadium) is important and it speaks volumes. What it isn’t is a universal excuse that should be paraded around every time Louisville football’s stock takes a dramatic dip. There was a time when the ugly history was so recent that it could apply to anything going on with the program, but we’re past that now. Or at least we should be.

It’d be one thing if the then to now had been a slow build that currently had us all dreaming out what this program could be, but Louisville football has already been great. Not only has it been great, it has flirted with the most extreme level of greatness.

This is a program that has finished in the top six nationally twice in the last 15 years and in the top 15 four times. It’s been talked about as a preseason national title contender multiple times, and it’s been in the national title conversation in November multiple times. It’s produced a Heisman Trophy winner and a handful of NFL superstars. It’s gone from no home to Conference USA to the ACC in a blink of the sporting eye.

The “aww shucks” routine doesn’t play anymore, and it shouldn’t.

That isn’t to say that Louisville is firmly established as a powerhouse or an also-ran in the hierarchy of college football. In fact, I think it’s still one of the very few programs that isn’t established as anything.

Let’s look at the food chain in the ACC, for example. Clemson and Florida State are established Goliaths. Virginia Tech and Miami are programs with rich histories that could, in any given season, find themselves in the smack of the national title discussion without shocking the world. NC State, Georgia Tech, Boston College and North Carolina can have a season here or there where they flirt with 10 wins, but they’re never going to be a legitimate threat to win the sport’s ultimate prize. For everyone else (outside of Louisville), eight or nine wins is cause for a parade.

I don’t know where Louisville fits into all of this, but I know where it’s headed, and I don’t like it. If this were Plinko, we’d be moments away from settling into the $500 slot. Sure it’s better than nothing, but it’s also nowhere near the $10,000 jackpot we were dreaming about when we released the chip.

This season is going to be the program’s worst since Steve Kragthorpe’s 4-8 swan song in 2009. It might end up being worse than that. This could at least be tolerable if Louisville’s young talent tears it up in the second half of the season and the coaching staff starts killing it on the recruiting trail. Both of these things are technically possible, but the young guns have been far from all-world so far, and Louisville’s 2019 class currently consists of zero four or five-star prospects and ranks as the 53rd-best in America.

We aren’t a program that can look down on eight or nine win seasons.

I agree with this commonly tossed around statement in a vacuum, but not in perpetuity.

Louisville isn’t a program that should expect to be ranked somewhere in the top 10 or top 15 on an annual basis, I get it, and I agree. It also isn’t a program whose fans should be forced to give up on the grandest of dreams entirely.

For me — and I can only speak for myself — this is what it boils down to: I want to see Louisville win a national championship in football before I die.

Back in 2014, when Louisville made the move to the ACC, if you’d asked every member of the fan base whether or not they believed they’d see the Cardinals win a national title in their lifetime, my assumption is a majority would have said yes. And it would have seemed like the safe answer. U of L was coming off two seasons in which they’d lost a combined three games, the high of defeating Florida in the Sugar Bowl was still lingering, as were the top six finishes from 2004 and 2006.

That was the dream then, and there’s no reason it still shouldn’t be the dream now. But it’s hard to escape the feeling that the dream is fading. College football is a caste system. If you settle into the role of a program that’s going to consistently top out at eight or nine wins, that’s an extremely tough mold to break out of. Ask any of the programs that have existed there for the past few decades.

The reality of our current situation is that clawing our way from where we are now to a point where eight or nine wins is even remotely feasible is likely going to be a lengthy ordeal. But don’t let that new reality trick you into thinking that eight or nine wins is the only goal worth clawing for. Once your mind settles on that, it’s hard to convince it that loftier aspirations are attainable. They are attainable, and if any group should know that, it should be us.