It is less than one year until the start of the 2013 NCAA football season, and Vanderbilt has decided to make a UK-like adjustment to their schedule. They are dropping actual competitive teams Ohio State and Northwestern from their schedule in favor of more cupcake teams on their schedule like the current ones they have (Austin Peay, UMASS, and UAB) in order to strengthen their postseason chances. Insert Ryan White joke here. Yet, Vandy’s decision to shy away from competition opens up an opportunity for Charlie Strong and the Louisville football program to step in and fill the slot. Will Tom Jurich make the move to make it happen, though? In order to strengthen the national perception of Louisville, it is a move that absolutely should be made. Let’s hope the best AD in the country considers it.
Despite a few head scratching game plans and close calls, this year has been an outstanding year for the Cards, who are currently battling Rutgers and Cincinnati for an undefeated season and BCS representative from the Big East. What people may be forgetting is that this team will return nearly everyone of value next season. That means Teddy Bridgewater, Devante Parker, Charles Gaines, Jeremy Wright, Senorise Perry, Eli Rogers, Keith Brown, Calvin Pryor, BJ Dubose, Dominique Brown (see how many guys I’m naming? That’s a good thing) and others will all be a year more experienced and a year better. Assuming hell does not freeze over and Charlie Strong is back on the sidelines next year, this team has the look of a top 10 team. However, the “look” of a top 10 team may not transition into an “actual” top 10 team, and being in the much-maligned Big East will put the team on the outside looking in regarding their postseason chances. No matter how good the Cards will be, no matter how wide their margin of wins are, even an undefeated, dominant looking Big East team will be jumped by virtually any one-loss SEC, Big 12, or even Big 10 or Pac-12 team. It is the way things are and the way things will continue to be in the disastrous postseason format. The Big East even this year, with three undefeated top 25 teams, does not get the respect it deserves, as we constantly hear analysts like Kirk Herbstreit refer to the “Power 5” conferences, then vehemently deny that ESPN holds any sort of bias against the conference (they clearly take us all for idiots). The only way for a Big East team to get the respect they deserve is to take on a top-tier team from the so-called “Power 5” (or technically “Power 4,” as the awful ACC is not going to do anything for the Big East) and defeat them. If a Big East team did this and went undefeated, would it put them in the mix for a national championship? It would certainly help their odds, but going undefeated would be a must. Yet, as difficult as that may be, going undefeated without playing a team like this would not even get a Big East team a sniff at a national championship.
So how does this get done? Can it get done? To be perfectly frank, it appears to be a long shot at this point. Doug Lesmerises, the Ohio State beat writer for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, suggests that the game will have to be a home game for the Buckeyes rather than a neutral site game, and the opponent at this point will most likely be a lower-level team. Despite this, Tom Jurich needs to do everything in this power to make U of L the opponent. The question is will he? It is no secret that Jurich has no interest in playing an opponent who refuses a home and home series with the Cards. The man has pride in the university and does not think we should succumb to any school that considers us beneath them. The man should be lauded for this. However, playing the opener at Ohio State would produce long-term benefits that would make the short-term sacrifice almost unnoticeable. First off, next season the Louisville football team will field perhaps the most talent-rich experienced roster fans have ever seen. If there is one season where Louisville will be able to keep up with the big dogs in college football, it is next season. Ohio State will be loaded. So will Louisville. Unfortunately, Louisville will not have the luxury of playing a Big 12 schedule to improve their strength of schedule. Their current non-conference schedule consists of Murray State, Ohio UNIVERSITY, Kentucky (ha), and Florida International. Not much strength, there. If an opportunity is there to take on Ohio State at Ohio State, you take that opportunity and accept that challenge. This team is going to be too good to waste away their schedule with not one legitimate non-conference opponent. They deserve a chance to prove they are among the elite next season, and by playing an opponent like Ohio State and beating them, or even going head-to-head in a close game, will be more than enough proof.
Furthermore, playing Ohio State will do wonders not only for future scheduling, but for recruiting as well. As far as scheduling is concerned, it may be best for the program if Jurich sucks in his pride and accepts a one-game contract at Ohio State. The fact is Louisville is still cleaning up the mess Kragthorpe left behind, and other programs are having trouble viewing the team as a legitimate matchup worthy of a home-and-home. If Louisville were to go down into Ohio State and beat them on their own turf, or at the very least challenge them to the brink of defeat, ADs at other programs would certainly take note. The Cards would appear legitimate on a national scale, and those ADs would look at them not only as a schedule filler, but a legitimate matchup that would improve their strength of schedule and bolster their postseason resume. Recruiting is tough enough as it is being in the Big East, but if recruits see that we are traveling to places like Ohio State and competing, it would make Louisville a much easier sell. If Louisville goes in and wins or threatens, other opportunities may surface against other contenders, and recruiting would once again be easier on the staff. Even if these teams do not offer a home-and-home right away, remember that top-tier recruits will WANT to travel to these places in front of these crowds on a national scale. It must be looked at as an opportunity rather than a sacrifice. If the Cards were to somehow secure this game at Ohio State next season, it will be a MAJOR sell to guys like James Quick, who will be an immediate impact player for the Cards. He is a Cards lean at this point, but giving him the opportunity to display his skills in such a major venue will only sweeten the pot.
This would be an ideal game for fans to attend, as well. It is only about a 3-4 hour drive from Louisville to Columbus, and one fans would certainly make. Any fan who does not have serious prior obligations and would not make this trip should have his fanhood seriously questioned.
Okay, so it will obviously benefit the Cards, but what about Ohio State? How will this game benefit the Buckeyes? This game will be as beneficial to them as it will be for Louisville. First off, now that Vandy (who is not exactly going to be considered a serious non-conference strength of schedule builder anyway) is out, the remaining non-conference schedule for Ohio State currently consists of home games vs. Florida A & M and Buffalo, and a road game at California. Woo. Hoo. For a program whose reputation has not only taken a major hit with off-the-field issues, but on the field as well (beating Indiana by 3 and giving up 49 points to them, anyone?), scheduling another cupcake may not be in the best interest of a team hoping to challenge for a national championship. Charlie Strong worked for years under Urban Meyer loyally and waited patiently for his own opportunity. I would think Meyer would certainly give Strong the opportunity he deserves. The major downside for Ohio State would be if Louisville went in to Columbus and embarrassed the Buckeyes. As long as Meyer is at Ohio State and Strong is at Louisville, the two will be competing for recruits in Kentucky, Florida and Ohio (among other places). If Louisville beats Ohio State, the recruits both are after may sway towards the Cards. If Ohio State loses, it helps the Cards championship aspirations, but severely damages the Buckeyes. But guess what? These risks also apply to Louisville, only more so. Louisville is already at a recruiting disadvantage being in the Big East. A loss to a team in the Big 10 they are fighting for with recruits will not help. The Cards, who want to be considered elite (as opposed to Ohio State, who will be despite a win or loss) could do themselves damage if they go in and get pummeled by the Buckeyes. It is a risk for both teams, but a bigger risk for Louisville, who will not even get a home game in return.
Regardless of the risk involved, this is something Louisville needs to seriously pursue. There is no guarantee the Cards will move on to the Big 12, and if there truly is still heavy mutual interest between the conference and the program, making a statement against Ohio State at Ohio State would certainly boost the interest from the conference. Of course, as I said early on, this appears to be a long shot, but is worth pursuing nonetheless, as are other similar opportunities versus comparable opponents. In playing no-name non-conference opponents and in-conference opponents who get no respect nationally, the program will eventually put itself at a major recruiting disadvantage on could potentially risk losing Charlie Strong. Therefore, taking a one-game contract at the place of a legitimate contender could be highly risky, but the reward would be even higher.