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Expectations vs. Mentality II: Shadow of 2006

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How have our expectations changed from then to now?

West Virginia Mountaineers v Louisville Cardinals Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

I don’t want you all to think I’m a one-trick pony, but I enjoyed the discourse in the comments for my last piece so much that I decided to follow it up with a broader discussion.

It’s a little longer too, so if you have less time to burn, I’m sure [read: hope] someone will leave a nice TL;DR at the bottom.

This week, a friend of mine mentioned to me something about how back in the Big East, we thought we could beat anybody. I agreed that this was a sentiment that was shared across much of the fanbase.

Just ask anyone about 2006. “Yeah, we totally could’ve beaten Ohio State in the BCS if we hadn’t lost to Rutgers.” It’s been 12 years, and I still find myself both hearing that and saying it to myself. So 12 years ago—which in terms of the modernity of this program is a long time ago—our expectations were as high as they could be. A friggin’ national title, for God’s sake, was what we were gunning for.

Obviously we haven’t come close to completely evicting a national title from our collective expectations since 2006. Certainly less than 12 months ago we were talking playoff going into the Clemson game. But in 2006, much of the fanbase full-heartedly believed we were on the fast track for Howard’s collision course. We bear-hugged those expectations then, and now we give them the more tepid, “sorry I just washed my hands” handshake.

So, what happened?

I guess we can list the litany of real, physical, concrete things of significance that happened to the Louisville football program since 2006:

  • Kragthorpe
  • Strong
  • Demise of the Big East
  • Conference limbo
  • Joining the ACC
  • Bobby 2
  • Lamar and the Heisman

So where in this actual timeline did our expectations and mentality shift from full-on national championship to where we are now?

The most obvious answer is whenever we joined the ACC and actually started playing those teams that annually compete for the national title. Currently, we sit at 2-7 against FSU, Clemson, and Georgia—teams that have all made the playoff at least once since its inception. We could make that eight if we count Auburn’s title berth in the final year of the BCS.

If you would’ve told me, or really most of us back in 2006, that in ten years we’d be in a power conference and have Petrino paired with the runaway Heisman Trophy winning quarterback—what would we have expected? What would our mentality have been? Probably not too far away from title-or-bust 2006.

So now that we’ve narrowed things, when did the tide actually turn? When Ed Oliver just diced our o-line? What happened in *cringe* the game after that? And that game after that?

I think that’s the obvious answer. And I think the football answer is that the last two seasons exposed our severe lack of depth at the trench positions (and I’d say secondary too without Jaire) compared to the best of the ACC. But I believe both of those conclusions point to a moment further back in the above timeline.

Our current mentality reality (yeah I know, screw me) exists because of the enduringly-painful, disappointing 2007 season. And after that, even at the heights of the Strong years, we still never felt the same. Sure, the Big East withered and our schedule barred us from real contention, but did any of us really think we could hang with Tebow Florida, Cam Auburn, or Bama?

I think we as a fanbase have since been dealing with the fallout from 2007, when those lofty 2006 expectations were quickly made us seem like we were jumping the gun. And I think this fallout informs our reluctant acceptance of what we think is going to happen in the Alabama game.

Again, I’m not advocating for anyone to expect us to beat Alabama or compete for national titles for the immediate future. But I think this perspective shows how we have changed so much as a football fanbase in these past 12 years. We know that the rug could be pulled out from under us in just one season. With the right combination of inexperience, injuries, and lack of depth and talent disparity, 4-8 could be right around the corner.

The specter of 2007 lingers over us more than any recent setback this program has faced. We still know the trauma from that plummet and feel its lingering sting. But in the face of all that past disappointment, I think we can engrain some permanent pillars of optimism in our current mentality:

  • We are (at least not with the current agreements) not going back to the Big East/AAC.
  • We are not going to toil in irrelevance with the resources this program has at its disposal.
  • We are probably not going to be on the outside looking in due to conference affiliation if/when we field a team capable of competing for the national title again.
  • And I believe this commitment of this fanbase (and hopefully the new administration) will not allow this team to ever suck.

If we take all this as wind at our backs, I think we can feel okay tapping into that 2006 mentality every once in a while, even in situations where it isn’t warranted. And I am of the firm belief that “every once in a while” includes that Bama game. Even if we do get our ass beat, and we hurt because of that, I can say with confidence that such pain will never mean what it once meant.

I know that the last couple of seasons have left us looking up at a ceiling still far above us. But the floor beneath us isn’t going anywhere but up.

We are on one big elevator ride. What kind of music do we want to play?