(Photo – SI.com)
As Houston quarterback John O’Korn’s pass sailed through the arms of wide receiver Aaron Johnson on 4th and goal in the final seconds of the fourth quarter Saturday night, Louisville’s BCS hopes sailed away with it. Sure, there is a slight (and I mean SLIGHT) chance the Cards could luck their way into a BCS, but a lot would have to happen. UCF would have to lose twice and/or several teams ahead of the Cards in the polls would have to start losing games they should not lose. Most fans knew and understood that the BCS was far in the rearview mirror, and as that incomplete pass dropped to the ground, their hearts dropped with it. What is arguably the most talented team ever assembled at Louisville will return to the BCS. Be that as it may, if this team finishes the season 11-1, is it really fair to refer to the season as a failure? Let’s examine.
Regardless of how anyone feels, an invitation to any bowl game aside from a BCS is beneath what this Louisville team is capable of accomplishing. With the schedule that was laid in front of Louisville, the Cards may as well have been handed a BCS berth by the committee. They were given a top 10 ranking and would not play one team in the top 25. They would be favored (heavily for the most part) in every game. The four toughest games (Rutgers, Central Florida, Houston and Cincinnati) would all be played at home. Not only did this team return nearly every impact player from its Sugar Bowl squad, but it added two highly talented Florida transfers, returned their leading ball carrier who had been hurt the previous season, and welcomed in a high school All-American and the MVP of the 2011 BCS National Championship. The only thing standing in Louisville’s way to another BCS was…well…Louisville. And that is exactly how the Cards were knocked off their path.
With less than 8 minutes left in the third quarter against Central Florida, Louisville led the Knights 28-7. The Cards were cruising, Teddy Bridgewater was on point, the defense was playing well, and everything appeared as if Louisville was going to walk off the field with a blowout victory. What happened next will haunt Louisville fans for the foreseeable future. The team simply cracked. The defense fell apart and no matter how well Bridgewater played to get the Cards back in it, the defense simply could not contain UCF and running back Storm Johnson. The Cards lost and lost in embarrassing fashion. They were better than this team. They were thumping this team. They just could not finish. Should Louisville not make a BCS as expected, it will be disappointing. Not because Louisville lost, but because they lost a game they had no business losing. They blew a 3-touchdown lead at home against a team they could not afford to lose to. That is what makes a non-BCS season a disappointment.
Yet, the question is not whether the season is a disappointment, but whether or not it is a failure. A knee jerk reaction may lead one to say yes, but before answering, think about a few things first. Everything projected for this season was based primarily off of one game: the Sugar Bowl. While that currently stands as the biggest win in Louisville football history, do not forget the rest of that season, where throughout the season, the team had trouble staying focused. After blowing a big lead against North Carolina that season in a close win, the Cards suffered back-to-back losses against Syracuse and Connecticut (the latter at home). It has been the same way this season at times. Aside from the Ohio game and FIU game, this team really has not played as dominant as people expected after the victory over Florida. Maybe…just maybe… the team is not quite at the level people imagined after that game.
Then there is the pressure. Once the schedule was finalized and a national championship was a long shot after teams like Texas A&M, Alabama and Ohio State passed on playing the Cards, the team was expected to go undefeated. Message board chatter and talk amongst fans was that a national championship was a long shot, but this team was elite and they (the fans) would be happy with a BCS. It was as if fans were expecting nothing short of a BCS and would settle for one of those if not the game on the biggest stage. Hell, the words “Russell Athletic Bowl” were not in the head of any Cards’ fans head before that one fateful Friday night loss. To play in a BCS, this team was going to have to go undefeated. The fan base was more or less saying to this team, this group of 18-22 year olds, “If you do not go undefeated, well that is very disappointing.” They could have won every game. Based on the talent and experience, they should have won every game. Yet, it is like in golf when you have a 5-foot putt to sink to win a tournament. You should hit that putt. It is a short, easy shot, but when the mental aspect sinks in, all of a sudden that putt looks hilly and long. The same goes with this team. They had an easy path, but when they are constantly told they have to be perfect, well…it can weigh on a young mind pretty heavily.
The fact of the matter is it is very, very hard to go undefeated in Division 1 college football. Teams like Ohio State and Alabama have less trouble due to the fact they have Hall of Fame coaches and All-American caliber players running third string reps behind better All-American caliber players (i.e., they are deep and talented). U of L is just not on that level. Those programs are used to such lofty expectations, while this is something new for Louisville. What Louisville does have is a group full of young, talented players who have played their tails off for the most part. They have erred at times. They have not been perfect. They likely caved under the pressure. But they are out there playing good, hard football. Marcus Smith, a former QB, leads the nation in sacks. Teddy Bridgewater is still considered the top draft prospect in 2014 by several services. Calvin Pryor and DeVante Parker have also seen their draft stock soar. These things are important to remember as more and more fans throw in the towel on the season. While the team may have not fulfilled the lofty expectations set in front of them, they played their hearts out for this program, some for 3-4 years. Fans have been outstanding this year, and I hope that continues. I hope the idea of a lesser bowl does not diminish the support from fans or cuts into game attendance. The ACC awaits and will provide for more opportunities.
Can this season be called disappointing? Sure. They fell short of expectations. Yet, categorizing the season as a failure in a sense is calling this team, these players, a failure. That just does not seem right. In fact, it seems flat out wrong. Just about every player on this team was instrumental in taken the program from certain death under the previous regime into one that is nationally relevant. They gave the university and this city another BCS trophy. Do not forget where this program was or where it is headed. One lapse, one bad loss should not categorize this group of young men as failures. They deserve a little more respect than that.