(A pathetic and typical home showing for a Temple football game – Photo, AP)
Before a single football was kicked off this season, national pundits and television analysts alike were blasting the newly-formed American Athletic Conference and in particular, the schedule of one of its members, the top-10 ranked Louisville Cardinals. College football fans wondered how a program whose most difficult game could come on opening weekend against a MAC team or in the third week agaisnt a bottom-dwelling SEC team, could be held in the same regard as powerhouse schools like Alabama, Texas A&M, Oregon, Stanford, LSU and Clemson. As it stands right now, Louisville, picked by many to run the table and potentially find its way in the National Championship picture, is 3-0 and ranked as high as #6 in the USA Today / Coaches poll. This week they face an FIU team that’s 0-3, fresh off a home beat-down to FCS Bethune Cookman and ranked 175th in the most recent Sagarin Ratings. Louisville’s non-conference schedule is among the worst in the nation, clearly, so they’re going to have to depend on at least a decent slate of conference games to save them. Right?
It’s basically been one exasperated case of Murphy’s Law for the AAC since the season began. Cincinnati, a team many believed would be the one and only true challenger to the Cards this year, looked solid on opening weekend rolling over Purdue 42-7 at home. But the following Saturday they were pounded at Illinois, 45-17, and lost their star QB Munchie Legaux to a knee injury for the remainder of the season. They bounced back and beat Northwestern State last week and get a pathetic Miami (OH) squad at home this Saturday, but after that, how dependable will they be as a potential national player? I’d say the smart money would be on them losing at least once, more likely twice, before their match-up with Louisville on December 5th. All eyes would have been on that Thursday night ESPN match-up, but now it’s lost a ton of its luster.
Rutgers was probably next in line as a potential dark-horse to challenge Louisville (and they still might) but an overtime loss to Fresno State two weeks ago hurt their perception and now they’ll host Arkansas this Saturday at home in Piscataway. The jury is still out on the Scarlet Knights, and if they win this weekend, they could be back in business. But whose to say how they’ll fare once conference play starts?
From there is just gets abysmal. Temple, the Cards’ week 6 opponent, has been an embarrassment. They got crushed by Notre Dame 28-6, beaten by Houston 22-13 and last week they dropped a home contest to Fordham. The Owls are 0-3 and certainly not doing Louisville any favors. How about South Florida? The Cards will travel to Tampa and the Bulls always play them tough there. Well, don’t expect any upsets this year. Even more so than Temple, S. Florida has been a complete joke. Already the stuff of legends, they got smashed by McNeese State, 53-21 on opening weekend, then followed that up week two with a 21-6 loss at Michigan State. As if that wasn’t enough, they came back home this past Saturday and lost to Florida Atlantic, 28-10. Another 0-3 team mercilessly dragging Louisville’s strength-of-schedule into the mud.
Then you have Memphis and UConn. Two more powerhouses just trying to get 15,000 people into their home games. The Tigers, you guessed it, are winless at 0-2, losing 28-14 to Duke and 17-15 to Middle Tennessee State. The Huskies, meanwhile, not to be outdone, have also lost both of their first two games (each at home) and sit 0-2 after losing to Maryland (32-21) and mighty Towson (33-18). So, if you’re keeping track at home, 5 of Louisville’s next 9 games will come against teams who have yet to record a single win this season.
That means the only hope of even somewhat salvaging Louisville’s strength-of-schedule rests on the shoulders of Houston and Central Florida. The Cougars are still a bit of a mystery after beating Southern (62-13) and the aforementioned UConn, but they appear to have the athletes and coaching staff to remain near the top of the AAC standings this year. The Cards will host Houston on week 10 of the season and we all need to be rooting our collective asses off for the Cougs here in the meantime. Finally, if there’s one other team that looks the part of a contender, it’s the Knights of Central Florida. They’re currently boasting a top-15 defense and have looked real solid in all three of their wins this season, including a 34-31 win at Penn State this past weekend. This Saturday they get an even bigger test and opportunity as they welcome 12th ranked South Carolina to Orlando. It’s a tall task, but if they can stay competitive or pull the upset, it would do wonders for the Cards and the conference as a whole. UCF travels to Louisville on October 18th, which is quickly becoming perhaps the biggest game of the AAC’s regular season.
National Championship hopes are probably a pipe-dream at this point for Louisville.
It’s just a shame that it will have more to do with their opponents than themselves.