Monday, September 9, 2013

The Cardinals’ Dilemma

By Ross Lancaster

After two weeks of a college football season, there's a necessary caveat synonymous with any broad, sweeping judgment for any conference or team: it's still early.

Yet, in college football, more than any other sport, the early games matter due to a system that is reliant on human subjectivity. It's why millions love the sport and are frustrated with it at the same time.

So, when Florida lays an offensive egg and can't back it up with the timely defensive stops that were so crucial to its 11-win season a year ago, that matters. When South Carolina's usually excellent defense gets run over by Todd Gurley, and gives up significantly more yards per play with Jadaveon Clowney on the field, that matters. And when Southern Cal's offense looks overmatched against a team that couldn't stop 11 kittens last year, it matters. You can go on and on, just with games from the weekend.

That's not to say that all of the above teams can't turn their seasons around, and even compete for division or conference titles in November and December. After all, it's still early. But they do have to turn it around from the way they played on the first Saturday of September. Teams don't win much of anything in college winning just over 60 percent of their games.

For all the teams that have been tested, lost and/or given up 550 rushing yards, there are still those that haven't had a test. Baylor looks utterly frightening at the moment, but the Bears are averaging 69.5 points against Wofford and Buffalo. And thanks to a favorable schedule, Baylor probably won't lose until November.

One of those teams that hasn't been tested yet is Louisville. So far the Cardinals have thrashed Ohio 49-7 and FCS Eastern Kentucky 44-7. Ohio has been one of the top clubs in the MAC for a while, but it still normally loses games against teams from conferences with more talent, as was the case with Teddy Bridgewater & Co. The thing is, there's a whole lot of Ohio left on Louisville's current schedule, if you know what I mean.

If we've seen a 2013 Louisville before in the BCS era, we've seemingly seen it every year. Schools from outside the upper tier of conferences have a now-lengthy track record of going undefeated, from Tulane and Marshall in the '90s to Utah, Boise State and TCU since the turn of the millennium. Louisville looks overwhelmingly likely to join them. And yes, while it's still early, a quick run-through of the Cardinals' schedule tells us that.

Louisville remaining road schedule features all teams that have at least one loss, and South Florida and Connecticut have already lost to FCS opposition. The last team on the schedule, Cincinnati, was projected to be Louisville's biggest obstacle to the Big East's American Athletic Conference's BCS bid and an undefeated record. Now, after Cincinnati QB Munchie Legaux suffered an awful knee/leg hyperextension in the team's loss against Illinois. (Note: if you haven't seen it, you have better things to be doing with your time.)

Other than that, Rutgers could give Louisville a game, but the Scarlet Knights also have a loss. Elsewhere in the AAC, Houston is likely to stay unbeaten with Louisville the longest, but that's only because of a Charmin-soft schedule through September. At this point, it seems like a stretch to even think that the Cardinals will play a mere one ranked team until a bowl game.

Of course, the biggest slap in the face to Louisville is that it's all coming, at least conference-wise, a year too early. While Louisville hasn't come close to finalizing its 2014 schedule, we at least know next year's slate will include Notre Dame, Florida State, Clemson, and Miami. If that had been the case for this year, we'd be talking about Louisville as a sure thing for Pasadena on Jan. 6 should it run the table. Also, should Louisville be a consensus top-four, but not top-two team come the end of the regular season, 2014 and its new playoff will feel that much more of an eternity away. But for now, it's "Whomp on fools until nothing remains" and hope for poll chaos.

For this season, I've tried telling myself not to pay attention to rankings until the middle of October or so. But more so than in basketball, where they inherently don't matter, those numbers are inescapable for football. And for better or worse, the ranking next to its name will follow Louisville all season. When looking at the Cardinals' current ranking, No. 8, you would think that would allow for enough time for teams above to beat each other up and for Louisville to rise six spots in three months. The precedent looks nearly hopeless.

The last team to go undefeated from an AAC-like conference was TCU in 2010. The Horned Frogs scored 30 points or more 11 times, 40 or more on six occasions and won by two or more touchdowns 11 times. TCU started the season ranked No. 6 and was on the outside looking in at No. 3 in the BCS come December. And that was with the luxury of playing then-No. 6 Utah in a showdown game in November. No other undefeated team from a comparable conference started as high as TCU or Louisville in the preseason.

Should any two teams from the big five conferences go unbeaten, it's game over for Louisville. And it's even somewhat hard to imagine a scenario where a 1-loss SEC champion finishes below Louisville, as even an eligible Ohio State wouldn't have made the title game over Alabama last year.

In the final season of the BCS, a Louisville team that goes undefeated with flying colors, but gets shut out of championship game consideration will be the final insult in the flawed system's history. Thankfully, next year, this won't have to be the conversation.

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