Refurbishing a Reputation

University of Louisville defensive coordinator motivates the team before the start of an open practice for fans. Photo by Adam Creech

University of Louisville defensive coordinator motivates the team before the start of an open practice for fans. Photo by Adam Creech

When the Louisville football team takes the field inside Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium against Charlotte on September 1, it will do so with a preseason top 25 ranking for the first time since 2013. The Cards check in at No. 23 in the preseason coaches’ poll, and are No. 19 in the Associated Press Top 25 that was released last weekend.

In all, this is the sixth time in the history of UofL football that a Cardinal team has started a season with a top 20 national ranking. This season, however, is a bit different than the other five on that list.

In 2002, the first time Louisville achieved a preseason top 20 ranking, the Cards were coming off a 10-2 regular season that ended with a win over nationally-ranked BYU in the Liberty Bowl. In 2005, Bobby Petrino’s team was coming off an 11-1 season in which their only loss had been a heart-breaker at national powerhouse Miami. In 2006, the team had just enjoyed a 9-3 regular season and a Gator Bowl appearance, and a year later, they had gone 11-1 and won the Orange Bowl. Louisville’s only other preseason top 20 ranking came in 2013, a year after sophomore QB sensation Teddy Bridgewater had carried the Cards to an 11-2 season capped by a Sugar Bowl stunner over No. 3 Florida.

This season’s top 20 preseason ranking does not come on the heels of a standout campaign. Sure, the 2015 UofL football team had its moments, but it spent exactly zero days with a national ranking of its own, lost five times and defeated just two teams – NC State and Texas A&M – that finished their seasons with a winning record.

The Associated Press ranked just four teams that won fewer than nine games in 2015: Louisville and the Pac-12 trio of UCLA, Washington and USC. Eighteen of the preseason top 25 teams won at least 10 games last season, and four of those squads – including ACC brethren North Carolina and perennial powerhouse Florida – are ranked behind the Cards.

The point of all this is that Louisville football suddenly finds itself in a place where pollsters no longer feel obligated to give the program respect only when the preceding season has demanded as much. Petrino and his staff hope this is reflective of a new era where fielding a top 20 squad is a perennial expectation, not the sign of a temporary uptick or a mere step in the right direction for the program.

“The reason we’re here is to win a national championship,” Petrino said during a recent interview on 93.9 The Ville. “We embrace high expectations. The entire program has extremely high expectations for themselves, including our fans, and we love that. We’ve worked really hard to get to the point where we can have a special season, and we feel like we have the team to make that happen this year.”

Regardless of whether or not what takes place over the course of the next four months winds up being deemed “special,” Petrino and his staff have put themselves in a position where they at least have a chance to be in this same place for every summer in the near future. The program is recruiting as well as it ever has, the staff has maintained a solid amount of continuity since Petrino’s return, and the facilities – including the freshly-opened Thornton’s Academic Center of Excellence – are right there with the elite of college football.

The only thing standing between UofL football and annual summer respect is a few more victories in the fall.

“We feel like we’re ready to take that next step,” Petrino said. “We feel like we’ve been close the last couple of years. Now all the other pieces are in place, and it’s on us to get it done when we get out there on the field.”

Big-boy football arrived in Louisville two years ago when the program joined the ACC, and now the Cards are reaping the reputation benefits that come with having powerful allies. Now it’s time to solidify this newfound status with some big-boy victories. VT