The Highest of Stakes

UofL faced FSU in a 2014 home game.

UofL faced FSU in a 2014 home game.

Louisville has played Florida State in football 16 times over the years and has defeated the mighty Seminoles only twice. The most recent of those victories, and likely the lone member of the exclusive victory club remembered by anyone reading this, came on September 26, 2002.

Almost 14 years to the day that the game took place, UofL will host Florida State in a contest surrounded by pomp and circumstance that was unfathomable in the early days of this century.

Not much has changed for Florida State since ’02. The Seminoles have won national championships, continued to dominate the ACC and head into the weekend with the same status they held on that rainy night 14 years ago: undefeated and ranked in the top five.

For Louisville, nothing is the same. The Cardinals are no longer the plucky Conference USA program attempting to crawl its way into some form of national relevance, and Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium is no longer an awkwardly-named sports cathedral with no history. UofL has been in a national title hunt, won an Orange Bowl, stunned a perennial powerhouse in the Sugar Bowl and now sits at the same ACC table as Florida State and Clemson.

Except the Cardinals still don’t feel like they get the same respect as the dinner guests sitting to the right and left of them.

If 2002 was when Louisville made a statement of existence, the statement they have the opportunity to make on Saturday could echo even louder.

ESPN’s extremely popular “College GameDay” program is coming to town for the first time, and the show will be leading into the broadcast of the Cardinals and Seminoles playing the first game of the 2016 season that features two teams ranked in the top 10.

“It’s a great thing for the city and for the University of Louisville,” UofL Head Coach Bobby Petrino said about the big event atmosphere. “But for our players, it’s really just about focusing and practicing and going about their business exactly the same way we have been, and that way it doesn’t become a distraction. It’s a great matchup, certainly something we’ve looked forward to. We’ve worked hard to try and get to this point, so now we have put everything we can in to preparing like we always do. You know, one of the things I believe is we don’t have to do something extraordinary to win the game – we just have to play good, solid Louisville Cardinal football.”

If “solid Louisville Cardinal football” is enough to take down No. 2 Florida State on Saturday, it won’t simply be a victory that makes people aware of UofL’s existence. This time, a win over FSU will vault the Cardinals into the thick of the national title hunt and will catapult burgeoning superstar Lamar Jackson to the front of the early Heisman Trophy race. It would also mark a complete reversal of status from 12 months ago, when Louisville was in the midst of its first 0-3 start since 1984.

All that being the case, it’s easy to see why most Louisville fans agree that this is the most significant regular season game the Cardinals have played since their showdown with West Virginia 10 years ago, and why others are arguing that it’s the biggest ever.

Of course, none of the talk or hoopla surrounding this game makes the task at hand for UofL any simpler.

“Florida State is a great program,” Petrino said. “They’ve been to the championship game; they’ve got a ring on their finger. We knew that if we were going to make a run in this conference or run to get to the goal that we want, that we had to find a way to beat them, so we are looking forward to the matchup.

“At the end of the day, we just need to go out and play well. We need to go out and win games and find a way to win a championship.”

Win on Saturday, and Petrino will be far from the only person mentioning Louisville and championship in the same breath. VT