It has come to my attention this month that every five years, on the third weekend of September, something extraordinary happens to the Louisville football program.
With the most recent occurrence still fresh in all of our minds, let’s take a quick trip down memory lane and examine the full power of “The Five Year Theory.”
Sept. 17, 2021 — Louisville 42, Central Florida 35
A football team and an athletic program in desperate need of something good to happen appear to be on the verge of having their wishes granted as a 1-1 Cardinal team controls a huge, nationally televised Friday night tilt against unbeaten and well-regarded UCF. Then, disaster strikes. With less than a minute to play, Malik Cunningham’s pass is tipped and intercepted, appearing to put the Golden Knights in perfect shape to kick a game-winning field goal and further dissect already shattered hearts across the Derby City.
On his very first play of the game, freshman linebacker Jaylin Alderman picks off UCF QB Dillon Gabriel and rumbles 66 yards to complete one of the more dramatic victories in the history of Cardinal Stadium.
Sept. 17, 2016 — Louisville 63, Florida State 20
I don’t this one requires much of a summary.
College GameDay made its Cardinal Stadium debut, Louisville beat the No. 2 team in the country by 43 points and became the biggest college football story in the country, and Lamar Jackson established himself as the undisputed early favorite to win the Heisman Trophy. U of L also honored Muhammad Ali in various ways throughout the day, including a butterfly decal on the Louisville player helmets as well as multiple butterfly logos on the field.
All of it was awesome.
Sept. 17, 2011 — Louisville 24, Kentucky 17
After taking a stunning home loss to Florida International the week before, Louisville found itself in the rare position of being a decided underdog heading into its annual rivalry game against Kentucky.
After getting his team out to an early lead, starting U of L QB Will Stein suffered a shoulder injury early in the second quarter. This forced freshman signal caller Teddy Bridgewater into the first extended action of his young college career. He responded by delivering touchdown strikes to Josh Bellamy and fellow freshman DeVante Parker, as Louisville left Lexington with an emotional 24-17 upset win over the Wildcats.
Bridgewater never relinquished the starting quarterback job, and the Cards wouldn’t lose to the Cats again until 2016.
Sept. 16, 2006 — Louisville 31, Miami 7
After nearly knocking off the Hurricanes on their homefield in 2004, Louisville fans and players alike spent the entire summer of 2006 counting down the days until Sept. 16. Things got ratcheted up several more notches during game week, when multiple players — including Hurricane QB Kyle Wright, who referred to Louisville players as “Miami rejects” — got involved in a war of words.
That war of words culminated with the Hurricanes stomping on Louisville’s midfield logo before the game, nearly sending the Petrino brothers to jail.
Even with star QB Brian Brohm going down in the first half, Louisville ultimately had the last laugh. Hunter Cantwell was brilliant off the bench, and the Cards rolled to a 31-7 win that set the stage for one of the more memorable seasons in U of L football history.
2001 — Bye Week
The magic knew that after a 3-0 start, a lopsided loss to Illinois was imminent, so it took the third week of September off. The Cards fell to the Illini by 24 a week later, but went on to go 11-2, win the Conference USA title, and knock off BYU in the Liberty Bowl.
Sept. 21, 1996 —Louisville 30, Michigan State 20
To me, this is where the magic peaks.
In the midst of what would be his penultimate season as Louisville’s head coach, Ron Cooper took a 1-2 Cardinal team up to East Lansing and knocked off Nick Saban’s Michigan State Spartans by double digits.
That’s right, Ron Cooper — likely the worst head coach of U of L’s modern era — defeated Nick Saban in a head-to-head coaching battle on Saban’s home field and at a time when Saban was captaining a superior program.
OTD Sep. 21, 1996. SAY WHAT?? Ron Cooper's 2nd Cardinal squad beats Nick Saban's 2nd Michigan State team 30-20 before 70,311 in Lansing. Ron Cooper beat Nick Saban. Redshift QB Chris Redman enters late in 1st qtr, throws 3 TDs. Cards Sam Madison goes 2-way, 2 rec w/122 yds 1 TD. pic.twitter.com/iBJTvT9Xv7— John Salzman (@HighPrairieFarm) September 21, 2021
The Cards would finish the season 5-6 and then go 1-10 a year later, leading to Cooper’s ouster and the hiring of John L. Smith.
1991 — Bye Week
Louisville once again spent the third weekend of September on a bye week, which is a probably a good thing. The Cardinals finished the season 2-9, with their only win over an FBS opponent coming a week after the bye — a 28-14 win over Southern Miss.
Sept. 20, 1986 — Louisville 45, Western Kentucky 6
Even the dreary Louisville football days of the mid-’80s were blessed by the five year theory magic. An independent U of L team that would finish the 1986 season 3-8 scored its most decisive win of the year with a 45-6 trouncing of WKU in week three. Making the offensive explosion all the more surprising was the fact that the Cardinals had been shut out in each of their first two games of the season — a 23-0 loss at Illinois and a 21-0 setback at Indiana.
Sept. 19, 1981 — Louisville 35, Long Beach State 13
Louisville had long been looking for some revenge for its 24-24 tie with Long Beach State in the 1970 Pasadena Bowl (probably not, but whatever), and it took some third weekend of September magic for it to happen. The Cards would win just five games in 1981, but one of those was this 22-point thrashing of the visiting 49ers.
Things get weird when you start get into the ‘70s, mostly because Louisville football seasons back then didn’t start until the third weekend of September or later. In 1976, the Cards opened their season with a 30-21 loss at Mississippi State on Sept. 16. Five years before that, they played Vanderbilt to a thrilling 0-0 tie on the same date. In 1966, the Cards didn’t open their season until Sept. 24, but in ‘61 they scored a 29-13 win over Tennessee Tech on Sept. 16.
Virtually every season before the ‘60s did not begin until late September, leading me to believe that the five year theory was either the creation of some particularly enlightened hippies or Gerald Ford. I’m sure we’ll find out someday.
Regardless, there’s no questioning the accuracy and power of this magic, which means it’s not too early to flip the calendar to 2026 and see what we’re looking at ...
Start the process of weaseling your way out of this game right now, Dawgs. You’re not gonna like what happens if you don’t.