This weekend, the Louisville football team will travel to Atlanta to face a top 10 Auburn team that is the preseason pick to win the Southeastern Conference. You know this because weâ€™ve been counting down the days to this one since what feels like early April.
Now season-openers are always exciting, and season-openers against big name programs are next-level exciting. But I think I speak for all of us when I say that thereâ€™s something a little bit different about this game and this day. The countdown to kickoff this summer has been more than just a still march to a big contest and a highly anticipated season â€“ itâ€™s been ripe with the reinforcement that Louisville is now officially playing with the big boys.
Fifteen years ago, Cardinal fans were still ecstatic over the recent opening of the 42,000-seat Papa Johnâ€™s Cardinal Stadium and counting down the days until the teamâ€™s annual showdown with Conference USA rival Southern Mississippi. Meanwhile, the powers that be at UofL were desperately trying (with little success) to get some of the sportâ€™s most powerful programs to agree to play home-and-home series.
Fast forward to last week when UofL athletic director Tom Jurich announced the plans for a stadium expansion that will eventually allow around 65,000 Cardinal fans to watch the red and black play at home. In addition to this Saturdayâ€™s game against Auburn, Louisville has set season-openers for the future against Purdue in Indianapolis (2017), against Alabama in Orlando (2018), and against Notre Dame at home (2019).
A Cardinal football fan from 1993 reading that last paragraph would probably look something like an early 19th century intellectual experiencing electricity: they could have imagined it, but being faced directly with its reality would still be staggering.
The best part about the move to the ACC from a football standpoint was never the potential access to the new playoff or the promise of more money, it was the guarantee that every single season Louisville would have a chance. A chance to play and defeat some of the biggest names in college football, a chance to earn a top 10 national ranking without people constantly questioning its validity, and a chance to win a major conference championship. There would be no repeat of 2013, when the Cardsâ€™ schedule knocked them out of the national championship race before a single snap was ever taken.
Perception trumps reality in college football more than it does in any other major American sport, and the current perception â€“ regardless of how many times itâ€™s disproved on the field â€“ is that if you play and are at least mildly competitive in a major conference, you are a much better program than ones which dominate lesser leagues. The company you keep is extremely important, and Louisvilleâ€™s new ACC brethren, in addition to the stadium expansion, have certainly played a large role in UofLâ€™s ability to get teams like Auburn and Alabama on the schedule.
Of course, with any potential reward there is a potential risk, and Louisvilleâ€™s big chance against the top 10 Tigers goes hand-in-hand with the chance that it might wind up being beaten in front of a large national audience on CBS.
When the Cardinals take the field inside the Georgia Dome, they will be doing so as double-digit underdogs for the first time in 27 games. The last time it happened? The 2013 Sugar Bowl, when Louisville was a two-touchdown dog against another SEC powerhouse, Florida. I donâ€™t need to tell you how that played out.
For as long as I can remember, all anyone associated with Louisville football has wanted is a shot. The program couldnâ€™t get into a top-tier conference because of its lack of on-field success, and then once that success came, it couldnâ€™t get any national powerhouse programs to agree to play. Now, the Cardinals have both the conference and the opponents theyâ€™ve always wanted.
You canâ€™t hit a home run unless you swing big, and you canâ€™t swing big unless someoneâ€™s willing to pitch to you. Expect Louisville to take a mighty hack this Saturday.
The expansion will include 1,000 modern club seats, 65 new premium loge-level boxes, and 10 exclusive field-level suites, while adding 25,000 distinct square feet of space. The Howard Schnellenberger Football Complex, which currently sits in the north end zone, will undergo a major expansion and facelift. The teamâ€™s weight room and conditioning center will double in size, creating a total of 20,000 square feet of work space for training, conditioning and therapeutic support. A spacious playerâ€™s lounge, improvements for coachesâ€™ offices and the team locker room and expansive theatre-style meeting areas will also be among the enhancements for student-athlete development.
PhotoÂ courtesy of Louisville Athletics