“Must-win game” is an overused term in the rhetoric of sports. Yeah, I’m sure an 11-1 season would feel just empty and meaningless to a team that lost their “must-win” contest. Even some Week 1 games are called “must-wins” now. And yes, the losers of those should feel free to pack it in; better luck next year. But some games come close to being worthy of the moniker. Some games have the potential to define the journey of a season: either launching forward with optimism, or careening into a torrent of angry Internet message boards and grumpy radio call-ins. For Louisville, Florida State is this turning point game.
The season hasn’t even begun, but the ACC schedule makers have already set the stage. Louisville, at 3-1, has recovered nicely from their encounter with football’s T-1000. The Cards are coming off three commanding victories over the least talented teams on the schedule, flaunting the offense’s formidable potential. Likewise, Florida State has initiated the Taggart era with a wave of positive momentum. At 4-0 with two ACC triumphs already in tow, the team has tapped into its overpowering athleticism and rode the excitement of young new coach to a stirring start. The national media eagerly turns its gaze to Louisville, anxious to anoint the winner as Clemson’s potential foil in the Atlantic division. A boisterous crowd, the largest in Cardinal Stadium history, awaits its team as Petrino and his troops run into an arena pulsating with energy. The opposing sides are well aware of the stakes, and hungry to prove their merit.
This scenario creates a definitive fork in the road moment for Louisville. It is the first true “toss up game” on the schedule. With a win, fresh optimism and energy would simmer among the program. The fan base, thirsting for a win against a ranked opponent, would be sated. The players will have sent a resounding message to the conference: that they do not plan to fade into obscurity in a post-Lamar world, and they are prepared to disprove those who underestimated them. The Cardinals would own a three game winning streak over a traditional superpower, a titan of the sport. The Alabama game would be well in the rearview mirror, with Louisville ready to embrace the exciting possibilities the remaining season could bring.
Of course, it would not be much of a turning point if there were not a drastically different possibility to ponder. A loss in this game, and the image becomes bleak. Fans from every corner make their frustration clear about not beating quality teams, and fears of a collapse without Lamar Jackson become more prevalent. The team would sit at 3-2, staring down the barrel of a schedule with genuinely not a single certain win left. Attendance, always tied at the hip to the season’s momentum at Louisville, would plummet sharply for Georgia Tech: a quirky and unfamiliar opponent for a demoralized team and subdued crowd on a short week of preparation. The season would find itself dangerously close to spiraling out of control.
“Must-win” remains an over-used cliché. There is no way to doubtlessly know when the peaks and valleys of a full season will come, or how young athletes will respond to the barrage of varying emotions that twelve games of football provoke. However, certain games have the potential to control the narrative of a season, the emotional state of a team, and the expectations people determine for that team. For Louisville, all of this is contingent on a victory over the Seminoles. So while it isn’t a must that the Cards win this game, I deeply hope that they do.