Last year I said that 2012 was the Most Important Football Season in Louisville History. The reasons were many, but the main reason was getting into a respectable conference and at the time I published the article my main focus was like everyone else:  The Big XII.

As we know the Big 12 didn’t happen, but an even better invitation to the Atlantic Coast Conference over the Connecticut Huskies did.  The ACC bid secures Louisville football for the foreseeable future, allowing the Cards to continue to financially thrive and also providing the schedule that will be required to gain entry into the 4-team playoff that will begin with the 2014 regular season.  Also despite a rain-soaked schedule Cardinal Football had the 2nd highest attendance in history for the 2012 season with 349,938 fans going through the turnstiles.  Those fans were able to witness the Cards win 10 regular season games and a healthy number of the Louisville fanbase absolutely PACKED the Superdome in New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl.   Sugar Bowl CEO Paul Hoolahan said to Tom Jurich: “Without the RED we are DEAD” as the Cards destroyed the Florida Gators both on the field but also in attendance.

The FOUNDATION has been laid.  Charlie Strong’s 3-year tenure will turn into at least 4 years after the program underwent a blitz from the Tennessee Volunteers.  Coach Strong said, “You can buy a person a lot. But you can’t buy his heart. His heart is where his enthusiasm is, where his loyalty is……my enthusiasm and heart are with the University of Louisville.”   A football program is more than fans, it is more than players, it is more than an administration, or a coaching staff.  A football program is all of those things combined.  Charlie Strong has made a commitment to Louisville, Louisville has made a commitment to him. NOW IS THE TIME TO MAKE A STATEMENT.  Cardinal Football needs to be eyeing ’13 for 13′. They have one win already.

This program has never had the opportunity that lies ahead.  EVER.  Howard Schnellenberger resurrected this program from disbandment, and in doing so famously said: “Louisville is on a Collision Course with the National Championship, the Only Variable is Time.”  Recently “The Pipe” added:  “……and the Time is Now”.

But even Howard became frustrated with Louisville and its place in the college football landscape when he left for Oklahoma. Ron Cooper could sell ice to eskimos but his results as a head coach never measured up to his ability as an assistant.  John L. Smith was exciting and had success before bolting to Michigan State.  Bobby Petrino took the Cards beyond Schellenberger heights and turned down LSU, Notre Dame, Auburn, and others before leaving Louisville for double the salary and the chance to coach the NFL’s most exciting quarterback in Michael Vick (at the time). Steve Kragthorpe…..well let’s just say he was ‘distracted’, but without the agonizing 3 years of Coach Kragthorpe maybe Louisville is in the Big 12 right now…..maybe Charlie Strong comes earlier and leaves for another job before the ACC can extend an invitation.  Whatever the timing or circumstance, Louisville has NEVER had a coach to stand up and proclaim that “LOUISVILLE IS WHERE I WILL BUILD MY LEGACY.”  And now, I believe, the Cards have that man.

The Year of the Statement

Step 1:  UNAPOLOGETICALLY TELL THE STORY OF CARDINAL FOOTBALL

Louisville invented trash talk.  It’s true.  And if the city didn’t invent trash talk on its own, at least perhaps Louisville’s most famous son, Muhammad Ali, is most closely regarded as it’s father. Ali, is famous not only for his ability in the ring but also for his ability to tell his own story.  The Greatest of All-Time, the G.O.A.T., is also known as “The Louisville Lip”   Personally I believe that if the Cards want to get where they want to be in 2013 they need to both flamboyantly win and tell their story.  It’s one thing to beat EKU by 40, it’s another to beat EKU by 40 and have Charlie Strong say afterwards: “We are really sorry that we had to do that to the good people of Richmond and Eastern Kentucky University.  But the SEC, Big Ten, and PAC-10, they don’t want to play us.  They don’t want to respect us either. So we had to do that to EKU and beat them so bad that Ohio State could feel us.  Everyone wants to say they are better than us because of a schedule, well let’s line up and play.  A schedule, a uniform, a television contract….none of that makes a program better than the University of Louisville.  Ask Florida.  They supposed to be S-E-C?  Well then why not line up and play?”

That’s how the G.O.A.T. would get a challenger or champion into the ring.  Ali would put them on notice.  He’d talk about how they were dodging him, he’d whip his opponents and then talk about his target.  And he was polarizing…..but he was saying the truth.  And The truth about college football is that teams routinely schedule around the myth and avoid hot teams, like Louisville.

Charlie Strong has made his statement.  Louisville is where he wants to be.  He has a Heisman Trophy candidate at Quarterback and starters back at all but 3 positions with almost all of his production returning from 2013.  And the doubters are already talking.  The doubters are already talking about the schedule not being good enough, as if a schedule has anything to do with how good an individual team is.  If the 1996 Bulls played in the Sun Belt, they still would have been the best team in the world that year. College Football is one sport where the NARRATIVE matters.  It’s the one sport where the discussion can actually affect change in a final match-up.  And so far, Charlie Strong and the Cardinal Football program have decided to let their outcomes on the field do the talking which is normally fine, but I think for 2013 the message needs to be more aggressive. In 2013, Cardinal Football needs to boast its claim to the top of the national landscape and make no apologies for doing so.

Much has been made about Louisville’s schedule.  It’s a tired argument.  Especially when Tom Jurich and Charlie Strong pick up the phone each and every year to each SEC & Big Ten school to try and schedule a series.  I’d like for the national narrative to change from Louisville’s weak schedule, and instead to the ‘myths’ that refuse to ‘man up’ and play.  The first rule of marketing:  If you don’t like what is being said…..change the conversation.  So far, Louisville hasn’t done that.  Louisville Football & Charlie Strong should make ‘WANTED’ posters of EACH AND EVERY COLLEGE FOOTBALL PROGRAM that has cancelled a series, refused to play, been beaten and/or almost beaten (ahem Ohio State) and never thought about putting the Cards on their schedule.  IT IS TIME TO PUT THE ‘DODGERS’ ON NOTICE.  I’m tired of cowardly football programs getting credit for avoiding hot teams and Louisville Football getting criticized for a weak schedule.  All the while Big Ten schools make it their business to play a MAC Subdivision schedule out of conference.

Step 2:  13 FOR ’13 …..and Get Help Along the Way

Once you call the Cards call out the entire country the bullseye will be squarely on the Cardinals’ back, it would be prudent to take care of business on the field.  A program can’t call out undefeated Ohio State if they lose to Rutgers.  But play an entire season undefeated with an average margin of victory of 25+ and no matter what the schedule, it will impress voters and maybe even the computers.  If nothing else, those with Heisman votes will begin seriously considering Teddy Bridgewater.  The worst thing that can happen is having a skill position player drafted in the Top 5 and him NOT being invited to the New York Athletic Club.

The Cards also need their opponents to win the big games that are on their schedule to help with the voters and the computers.  There are actually some games on Louisville’s opponent schedules that could prove to be pretty juicy and helpful:

Ohio: Louisville isn’t going to get much credit for beating a solid Ohio team that was in the Top 25 for part of last year, but the Bobcats could easily win 9-10 games in 2012.

Kentucky: See Below

FIU: Florida International has a chance to win over some national respect with a game against a bad Maryland team, but new Head Coach Ron Turner (how did he get a head coaching job?)  versus Randy Edsall is more like a battle of ineptitude than a battle for respect.  Still I like  the Panthers.

Temple: Let’s face it.  The Owls aren’t scaring anyone. I don’t know much about long-time assistant Matt Rhule’s ability to be a head coach, but maybe TU can pull off a HUGE upset over Notre Dame in the opener if the Irish still have a hangover from the bulldozing in the BCS National Championship game over Alabama. But otherwise a win over Temple is what people expect this Louisville team to do.

Rutgers: Potentially, this game could be HUGE.  The game is in early October and college football will be at a point where they are sizing up the top college football programs in the nation. If all goes according to plan they’ll be looking at the Louisville Cardinals.  This game in 2012 was epic, and really didn’t get enough credit nationally for as good of a game as it was.  The Scarlet Knights finished 2012 with the #4 Scoring Defense in the nation and had 7 players drafted in the 2013 NFL Draft.  It was a big time game.  Leading up to their match-up in Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium, Rutgers will play at Fresno State in their openers and will HOST Arkansas.  Both could be notable wins.  This will be a HUGE game for the Cards, but if Louisville could get Rutgers and “The Mighty Gary Nova’s” to cooperate and come to Louisville undefeated this could be a huge opportunity for both programs.  (Personal Note: Rutgers was beyond a shadow of a doubt the most enjoyable regular season road trip I took in 2012. The Cards may never go back, but if Julie Herman and Tom Jurich can come to terms, I recommend).

UCF: I’ve had limited interaction with Central Florida and its fans.  But if there is one thing I have learned it is this:  The Knights believe that they can be a top tier college football program.  UCF may seem a little middle-class impersonating nouveau riche, and while they haven’t quite ‘made it’ there is no reason to encourage them……..they may actually get there.  In 2012 UCF lost to Ohio State (who went 12-0) by 15, and the SEC’s Missouri 21-16 while nearly capturing the Conference USA title.

The Knights are coming off of a 10 win season and will be traveling to Louisville after previously facing off against Penn State & South Carolina.  Central Florida has done a nice job on the recruiting trail, and I do expect good results for the Knights against the blue-blooded Nittany Lions in State College, PA and host the South Carolina Gamecocks.  Wins and good showings would do well for the Cards leading up to the match-up and even more if the Cards prove best.

USF: This has been a good game for the past 5 seasons.  There is no reason to expect that to change when the Cards travel to Raymond James in late October.  Depending on what happens, there could still be questions regarding Louisville but the world will have a pretty good idea about the Bulls after playing Michigan State, Miami, Cincinnati, and Connecticut.  Louisville could have a pretty firm grip on its own destiny by this point in the season, but I think we have all seen strange things happen in Tampa to really good football teams.

Connecticut:  Sure, this is the only game that the Cards can exact revenge from 2012.  UConn beat the Cards in Overtime and broke Teddy Bridgewater’s wrist and injured his ankle.  This game will be personal. Not to mention that Louisville was given the bid to the ACC over UConn and the Huskies are staring down the barrel of obscurity as a result.

Connecticut finished 2012 with the #9 Total Defense team in the nation and had 5 players (4 defensive) selected in the 2013 NFL Draft. Hank Hughes proved to be an outstanding defensive coordinator and UConn recently decided that it would need an offense to win football games when it hired T.J. Weist from Cincinnati.  This could be a dangerous duo as Connecticut will no longer be the defensive juggernaut that you don’t have to worry about giving the ball to………because what exactly where they going to do offensively?  But now Weist gives the Huskies a legitimate change to teach some offense in East Hartford.

UConn hosts the Cards in early November, and while there probably won’t be a lot of national respect for beating the Huskies (even if UConn is an outstanding football team) Connecticut does have an opportunity to take down Michigan in September.

Houston: The Cougars still have some nice pieces leftover from the Kevin Sumlin era, and we all love former Cardinal Assistant Tony Levine.  But the Cougs aren’t going to move the needle nationally or in terms of the computers for the Cards.  The best thing that can happen is for UH to beat BYU on October 19th, but if the Cards win this game don’t expect for it to mean a lot in terms of rankings.

Memphis: This game couldn’t come at a worst possible time for the Cards. Late November, the post-season is taking a clear shape and evaluations are being made.  The Tigers are one of the worst college football programs in the country and they will have plenty of opportunity to prove it as they play one of the worst schedules imaginable in 2013.

Cincinnati: We’ve had our battles. Both on the hardwood and on the gridiron.  Nippert Stadium is one of my favorites and this game could end up being an epic finale for the Cards. Louisville will close their regular season on the road for the 4th consecutive year (thanks Big East & AAC). After this game Cincinnati will begin construction on an expansion for Nippert and will not play at the venue until 2015.

In my opinion Cincinnati was the best team Louisville faced in 2012.  The same could be true in 2013 and the Bearcats & Cardinals could easily both be undefeated on December 5th in Cincinnati.  This is the kind of stage that Louisville needs.  It is the kind of stage Teddy Bridgewater needs.  Undefeated teams (if it happens) don’t stay outside of the Top 15, or even the Top 10.  Tommy Tuberville takes the reigns from Butch Jones and I do expect some early transitional issues, but the Bearcats open with a very feeble Purdue & Illinois, followed by FCS Northwestern State, and then Miami (OH).

Step 2A: BEAT KENTUCKY INTO SUBMISSION. 

It’s unlikely that even a 100-0 beatdown would silence Kentucky fans.  In football, the “S-E-C” chant has become a favorite of Wildcat fans for my entire lifetime. While I have always found it interesting to watch a nail celebrate its relationship with the hammer (or an ant in its relationship with a boot), I have often wondered about those who derive pride from other people’s accomplishments, particularly those of their competition.  (Is Auburn happy about Alabama’s National Title?)

But this off-season, Kentucky did something.  It’s quite unusual for the UK administration, (and you may not believe it either but) they actually decided to take an interest in football.  They hired an up and coming assistant coach with a familiar name, Mark Stoops and the Big Blue Nation (BBN) has taken up the name of “Stoops Troops”. Kentucky also did something crazy….they actually opened up their salary pool to SEC levels of the late 1990s, and have promised to upgrade their facilities sometime before 2016.

One of the strangest arguments UK fans use to ridicule Louisville football fans is the schedule.  I have always found it interesting because Kentucky is on UofL’s schedule and a familiar punching bag of the SEC East.  UK fans have unknowingly been making fun of themselves since the series began anew in 1994, and in 2013 that will continue.  The Cards schedule would improve, of course, if the Cats were even somewhat relevant in their own league.

Coming off a 2-10 campaign with wins over Kent State and Samford, Kentucky opens their 2013 season in Nashville against Western Kentucky who upset the Cats at Commonwealth Stadium in Overtime during the 2012 season.  This year WKU vs. UK will showcase new coaches for both programs, but this time long-time nemesis Bobby Petrino.  Petrino never lost to Kentucky while at Louisville, but did commit blasphemy in his 1st year at Arkansas losing to the Cats 21-20 in Commonwealth Stadium.  Game 1 for the Cats won’t be a walk in the park.  Game 2 against Miami (OH) should be much more manageable for the Cats.

But back to the beating into submission part.  When Louisville walks into Commonwealth Stadium on September 14th, UK will be beginning a 4-week stretch that will include the Cards, the Florida Gators (who Kentucky hasn’t beaten since 1986), the South Carolina Gamecocks (universally preseason Top 10), and the Defending National Champions Alabama Crimson Tide……………….yeah. Now normally I would look at this stretch and sympathize, but the Wildcat program has been making quite a bit of noise in the off-season.

Forget the annual billboard purchase that Kentucky Football likes to make closest to Louisville’s campus.  I actually like that touch, poking the bear has never been a good idea but it’s one less motivational tool that Charlie Strong and Tom Jurich have to pay for.  UK finances that one on their own.  The billboard wars are always entertaining, but it is unlikely that any in the future both in placement and meaning will ever take down the champion of billboards, “We’re Miles Ahead”.  The double entendre sets the standard in billboard jabs in this rivalry, and will remain just over the Kentucky River for future generations to enjoy.

The REAL reason why the Cats need a lesson in humility this season is simple:  YAHTZEE.  For most people, Yahtzee is Milton Bradley created dice game. But now the Kentucky Football Coaching staff uses the dice game name as a rallying cry whenever a new commitment has given his verbal agreement to play for the Cats.  Yahtzee…….I guess it’s a step up from the board game that was previously associated with Kentucky football:  CANDYLAND.

UK has had a lot of use for their new favorite rally cry lately. Currently, Kentucky sits in the Top 15 by all 3 major recruiting services (247sports.com, Rivals.com, and Scout.com) for their known verbals for the 2014 class.  That is unprecedented. Kentucky is in the SEC and their roster presents immediate opportunity for starting positions for incoming freshman, something no other SEC program can offer.  But the Cats have even beaten out the Cards on a few players, starting with Louisville Trinity’s James Hatcher, a 4/5-star Defensive End who switched his commitment from the USC Trojans.

Then there was the instance of Kentucky commitment Denzel Ware making public a Facebook conversation with Louisville WR coach Ron Dugans. Ware is a Florida panhandle prospect where the Cards have done really well since Charlie Strong’s arrival to Louisville.  But the Cats have also entered some of Louisville’s Ohio territory gaining commitments from targets like Mike Edwards, Darius West, and Darryl Long. The Kentucky staff is selling these very viable prospects on the notion that Kentucky Football is on the ‘up and up’…….Louisville would be wise to show them otherwise on the field.

At this point, Stoops has done a really nice job of building excitement for the program.  He’s recruited well, sold a great deal of tickets, even put together a very respectable staff.  The question is:  Can they do it on the field?  Cat fans seem to think that he will, with one even going as far to say that “UK is the hottest team in the SEC” and took direct shots at the Cards. UKUofLFootball3

Last season, Louisville lead the Cats 32-7 in the 3rd Quarter, when Charlie Strong pulled his 1st team offense, including QB Teddy Bridgewater out of respect for his friend and former colleague Joker Phillips.  The game was a domination.  But the final numbers certainly don’t reflect how hopeless victory actually would have been for the Cats.  Instead, the final score and yardage totals seem to indicate otherwise.  This has lead to the Louisville fanbase having to deal with a year of arguments (after the requisite 3 weeks of silence) about schedule, about coaching, about recruiting, about attendance, and just about everything else that a Kentucky fan can bring to argue outside the final score. Even with victory miles away from grasp THEY STILL WERE TALKING.  And they are talking now.  For us Cardinal fans, the chatter is REALLY old, and I think that Charlie Strong & Co. owe it to the fans that have to endure the 8-months of nonsense each and every year to put up a score so obnoxious that PTI (Pardon The Interruption) actually has a segment after game week to discuss whether or not a ‘mercy rule’ should be implemented in college football.

The kind of win I want to see on September 14th can only result in tears of both sides.  Tears of beauty and joy from my fellow UofL brethren, and tears of complete and total annihilation from Kentucky.  I want their fans to openly wonder whether or not their commitment list is intact after the game.  But more than anything, SILENCE will do.  Knowing their place beneath the heel……I like it when Kentucky fans proudly proclaim, “We Don’t Really Care About Football.”  Or “Wait Til ______”.  Throughout 2013 UK fans will watch UofL football just begging to the television for the Cards to lose, “Please don’t go Undefeated” will be the plea.  I’ll never forget how satisfied the Cat fans were when Louisville was paired with Florida in the Sugar Bowl, mocked the Cards chances and then were silent until February when amnesia apparently takes affect.

But no matter what the final outcome is on September 14th, just be prepared for the spin.  When the Cards won the “Whistle Game” a certain radio host had a post-game show in which he accused the Cardinal coaching staff for ‘cheating.” Later, that same radio host recanted (with no evidence at all to support his claim) saying “I was joking.”  In 2012, the excuse was, “We don’t care about Basketball.”  But an interesting thing also happened in 2012…..UK actually fudged the numbers on their attendance figures.  For the season UK announced that 347,838 people attended games at Commonwealth Stadium, but Jennifer Smith of the Lexington Herald-Leader discovered through an open records request that number was actually just 218,422…..just 62.79% of what was reported and 129,416 shy of reality.  I know I have certainly endured my fair share of spin, misinformation, and absurd claims over the years interacting with UK fans but let’s just hope for a win so embarassing that will put a stop to the madness.  Acceptance is usually the first step.

Step 3:  Big Time Programs Need Big Time Fans

It’s no secret that Louisville fans like to party.  Other programs have alcohol and fun banned from their tailgates (I remember my first beer!), while at UofL alcohol & fun are a part of Louisville culture. No one wants to change the party-like atmosphere that happens at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium, however, all that fun and partying could lend itself well to the program if properly implemented.  But other than changing the assignment parking plan and rewarding top-tailgaters, I think the most important thing fans can do on Game Day at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium is show up, on-time, stay the entire time, and be as loud as humanly possible throughout.  Louisville football could certainly cooperate by not cancelling ‘CardMarch’ (weather) and then wondering why the fans aren’t there the next week.  Rain or shine, CardMarch needs to happen.  It’s a time when the entire program comes together as one for encouragement.

Be In Your Seats Before Kickoff.  Imagine that you are a college kid and you spend 365 days a year waking up early, working out, and putting yourself through a mental and physical grind for 12 games a year.  Imagine being so excited to show off all of your hard work as you come out of the tunnel and see the stadium 2/3rds full.  The stadium does fill up about mid-way through the 1st quarter, but by then the student athlete’s moment to come out for kickoff amped from the sight and sound of a sold-out & packed stadium is over.  By the time the stadium fills in the players are focused on their assignments & winning the game.  Also imagine if you went to New Orleans and missed Terrell Floyd run the opening play back for a Touchdown.  Chris Hatfield recently did a column on Louisville’s expectations within the fanbase.

2013 started out with a bang, an incredible Spring Game atmosphere that followed an outstanding showing in New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl.  New Orleans was PACKED with Card fans, and the program probably had the best CARDMARCH ever outside of the team hotel. The key now is keeping that momentum going.  Having 55,000 strong in the seats before kickoff, loud & proud throughout.  A fanbase that brings 10-15,000 fans to road games against Kentucky & Cincinnati….and then 30,000+ for the bowl.  THAT is a statement.

Step 4:  Dominate the Bowl

I think we’ve all seen the positive effects of winning the last game of the season.  Specifically for Louisville, winning the Sugar Bowl and coming into 2013 with a favorable national ranking and the long-tail positive press that UofL football has enjoyed since early January. But  the Bowl Domination wasn’t just on the field. It was in New Orleans, on the streets, on Bourbon Street, and in the stands.  Dominating the bowl means moving Louisville to Miami, New Orleans, Glendale, Pasadena, or wherever the Cards land and the team taking over when they get there.

Louisville may be able to go 13 for ’13, go undefeated and play for the National Championship. Maybe they won’t. But no matter what the course of the season takes, it stands to reason that the Cards will face a very significant post-season opponent.  Once there, the program can take another step forward and enjoy another off-season of extended positive vibes that will help in recruiting and the early national polls.  They just have to win the game, win the city. Dominate the Bowl in all aspects.

Step 5: Reload

After the 2013 season Cardinal Football is going to go through a transition.  Not only will the Cards be moving into a new league from the AAC (American) to the ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference), but they will also be losing several key pieces of the program following the bowl.  Louisville will be saying goodbye to 18 seniors, including several starters and key contributors like: Preston Brown, Hakeem Smith, Roy Philon, Kamran Joyer, Damian Copeland, Brandon Dunn, Marcus Smith, BJ Butler, George Durant, and Senorise Perry.

The Cards may also lose several underclassmen in addition to the expected departure of Top NFL prospect Teddy Bridgewater. I personally think several players may have a decision to make; players like Gerald Christian, DeVante Parker,  and Calvin Pryor I personally think have potential to reasonably decide to leave early.  It all depends on their season.

Also I think Shawn Watson will have an opportunity to take a head coaching job somewhere in college football.  I’ve always thought of Watson and Offensive Line coach Dave Borbely as a package deal, and other coaches may also have an opportunity as well.  Surviving the attrition of a college football off-season is going to be VERY important between 2013 and 2014 especially.  There will always be roster turnover in college football, and occasionally significant coaching changes….but moving to an upper tier league like the ACC isn’t typical.  Louisville’s recruiting class is already shaping up nicely as Matt Vories recently noted, but there could be quite a bit of change to Louisville football heading into a season when the Cards will be playing Florida State, Miami, Notre Dame, Clemson, and the rest of the ACC.

MAKE THE STATEMENT

A lot of people will talk before the season.  A lot of people will talk during the season.  But Louisville Football can only control what it can control. Cardinal Football should unapologetically tells its story nationally, regionally, and locally. UofL should win games (13 for ’13) and hope their opponents improve their perception along the way.  UofL should beat Kentucky into submission and establish themselves as the ONLY power in the state. Fans who expect a big time football program need to become big time fans. The Cards need to dominate all aspects of whatever bowl they participate in on and off the field. And lastly, Louisville needs to reload their roster and possibly their coaches with as little disruption as possible heading into a barometer season that will be 2014 in the ACC.

2013 is the Year of the Statement.

 

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@UofLSheriff50. Louisville native, University of Louisville Business School Grad c/o 2004. Co-Founder of TheCrunchZone.com

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