COMMENTARY | The Louisville Cardinals are on a roll right now.
They're finishing up their second consecutive 11-win season and preparing to play in their fourth straight bowl game. They have a coach everyone else wants. They're setting attendance records. What more can they want?
How about a national championship?
Many credit the Cardinals' 22-3 record over the past two seasons to a weak schedule, and assume they'll fall back to earth when they move to the Atlantic Coast Conference next year. But Louisville has quietly built a solid program, and it will surprise many by how quickly it will compete for an ACC championship and a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Louisville's success begins with coach Charlie Strong. Since taking over a moribund program in 2010, he's led the Cardinals to a 36-15 record. He led the team to a BCC bowl win last year, and came within three points of being undefeated this season. As defensive coordinator of Florida's 2009 champs, he knows how to win at the highest levels. Other programs have recognized his talents -- Tennessee and Auburn courted him last year, and he's already been connected with (and declined interest in) the recent opening at Texas. He's a winner, and the right guy to lead Louisville to the top.
To win, you need top-tier players, and Louisville is getting them. Strong has used his connections down south to mine football-rich Florida, and keeps blue-chippers from Ohio and Kentucky close to home. He is winning recruiting battles against established top-tier programs (he signed Teddy Bridgewater after the quarterback had already committed to Miami). This year, four-star DT Poona Ford of South Carolina turned down offers from Ohio State, Oklahoma State and South Carolina to play for the Cardinals. And Ford isn't the only one; talent is on its way to Kentucky.
Upgrading the Schedule
As in real estate, it's all about location, and Louisville is moving to the right place at the right time. While the Cardinals' competition in the Big East/American Athletic Conference has been weakly regarded, the ACC has no glass ceiling in the polls. With a four-team playoff beginning next season, strength of schedule will play to their advantage. By dominating Florida in last year's Sugar Bowl, the Cardinals proved they can beat a top-five team; in the ACC, they'll have the opportunity to prove it wasn't a fluke, and a conference championship would put them on the short list for a playoff spot.
Louisville already has a championship-level defense, second nationally in yards allowed and third in scoring defense in 2013. The Cardinals lose three senior starters, including third-team all-American DT Marcus Smith, but return almost everyone else and have enough depth to maintain their dominance. Smith know defense and has recruited wisely. Defense will continue to carry the team, even after Bridgewater moves on to the NFL.
Commitment From the Top
A top program doesn't come cheap, and the University of Louisville has stepped up. When Strong was courted by other teams last year, the school locked him up long-term, making him college football's seventh-highest paid coach and declaring in the process that they will not be a stepping stone program. The school added 13,000 seats to Papa John's Cardinal Stadium in 2010 to accommodate a growing fan base. Three years later, the Cards have outgrown their 55,000 seats and are looking into expand again, possibly up to 80,000. The school will give Strong the tools he needs to win.
Pieces are quickly falling into place, and Louisville intends to be part of the championship discussion very, very soon.
Dave Allen, who lives near Louisville, has covered news and sports for the better part of 25 years. He has been published in the Buffalo News, as well as several other publications. His family misses him dearly during football season.
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