By MIKE RUTHERFORD
The only thing in Louisville more tired than those Tony Malito commercials is the debate surrounding Cardinal football fans.
For as long as I can remember, UofL football diehards have been forced to see their entire fanbase painted with a broad and very critical brush by rival fans, frustrated coaches and even some of their fan brethren. The complaints have always been the same: the fans don’t show up early enough, they spend too much time out of their seats, and they leave too soon before the game is over. It’s not that the denunciations aren’t without some merit, it’s just that everyone and their creepy uncle are tired of hearing them.
Having said all of that, there has always been one area where Louisville football fans have excelled, and that’s showing up and creating an appropriately dynamic atmosphere for big games.
Few programs do the big game better than UofL. In 2002, fans braved a monsoon to watch the Cards stun then-unbeaten and fourth-ranked Florida State in overtime. They took to the field and then took down the goalposts, leaving ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit to exclaim, “This is college football!” Four years later, Louisville again hosted an undefeated top-five team, only the Cards were sporting an unblemished record and a top-five ranking themselves. With the rest of the nation, UofL fans flawlessly pulled off one of the first “Black Out” games, an evening which is still widely-credited with popularizing the craze. Only a season ago, Cardinal fans provided a tremendous environment against a Central Florida team which was unranked at the time, but which posed the biggest threat to UofL’s BCS chances.
As impressive as the fans have been under the national spotlight, Louisville football teams themselves have been even better.
For many, many years, all anyone associated with Louisville football has wanted is a shot. The program couldn’t get into a top-tier conference because of its lack of on-field success, and then once that success came, the team couldn’t get any national-powerhouse programs to agree to play. This was frustrating, especially in years when UofL fans knew they had a team that could compete with anyone.
Still, Louisville has always made the most of the rare opportunities that have surfaced during the modern era. From the 1991 Fiesta Bowl throttling of Alabama to the previously mentioned top-five wins in ’02 and ’06, and then of course the 2013 Sugar Bowl win over Florida. The Cards have made a habit of stepping up when the spotlight has been the brightest, and in a weird way, that has almost made the lack of chances and the lack of respect that have plagued the program over the last two or three decades even more irritating.
I bring all this up, of course, because one of those rare opportunities is coming to Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium Thursday night.
Florida State may be bringing the nation’s No. 2 ranking with it to Louisville, but make no mistake about it, the Seminoles are THE name in college football right now. The reigning national champions from Tallahassee have won 23-straight games and are the only team in the country that can claim a Heisman Trophy winner as their quarterback. They’re coming off one of the most dominating seasons in recent memory, and have more or less coasted to a 7-0 start in 2014.
Suffice to say, FSU losing Thursday night would be the biggest story in the sports world for the rest of the week, and a large chunk of the country is going to be watching ESPN to see if it happens. While the ‘Noles would be at the front of all the headlines, the event would also amount to a quasi-championship of sorts for Cardinal football.
One of the biggest complaints fans have with college football is also an area that exists near the center of the sport’s popularity: there is no other major American sport (or major sport period, really) thatâ€™s regular season is less about ensuring a fulfilling and significant ending than college football. This year’s four-team playoff has changed things a little bit, but it doesn’t alter the validity of the previous statement.
I’m not just talking about the way the sport crowns its national champion here. Regular-season games are more significant in college football than in any other sport for all teams involved, not just the ones still in the mix to claim the sport’s top prize. Part of that is because there are, relatively, so few regular season games, and another is because of the sport’s deeply-rooted rivalries.
For example, say Auburn goes 9-3 in a regular season that includes a stunning upset of arch-rival and top-ranked Alabama as well as a huge non-conference win over someone like Ohio State. Tiger fans aren’t going to be overly-consumed with how the team does against Duke in the TaxSlayer bowl. They’ll be into the game, sure, but they’ll also know that the legacy of the season will have pretty much already been established.
Basically, college football’s regular season includes at least a few games on every team’s schedule that are de facto bowl games in their own right. If you’re a 3-4 team in the SEC that still has a couple of home games left against top-10 opponents, those are going to be huge events. A win isn’t going to turn you into a contender for the national title, but your fans are still going to celebrate like you are. Records are inconsequential here; a win and you’re champions for that day and that weekend.
Thursday is going to be a game and event which presents an opportunity for Louisville to be that type of champion. If history is any indication, both the Cardinal fans and the players are going to take full advantage.