If Louisville football wants to be special again, it needs to be good first

There is no major American sport with a larger disparity between the haves and the have nots than college football.

At various points in its existence, the sport has run with the tagline “every game matters” or “every week is a playoff.” It’s a simple, straightforward, easy to digest advertisement that applies to roughly 55 percent of the 131 programs that compete in the Division I Football Bowl Subdivision. The reality is there is no other major American sport where a team can win every game on its schedule and still not be assured of even a chance to compete for its sport’s top prize.

The College Football Playoff — widely (and righty, I believe) viewed as a step in the right direction — was supposed to open the national championship door to the Dalits of the sport’s caste pyramid. It’s been more like a crack.

This will be the ninth season that the four-team playoffs has existed. To date, it has featured a total of 12 different programs. The sport’s eight national championship games have featured just six different programs. Alabama has appeared in the game six times, Clemson four times, and Georgia and Ohio State twice apiece.

For a program like Louisville and the slew of others desperate to simply receive a dinner invite from the college football elite, there are really only two paths to the party.

The first is to catch lightning in a bottle. This typically involves some combination of having a rare handful of elite recruits in your backyard, another handful of “diamond in the rough” prospects who develop into NFL talents, an elite coaching staff that hasn’t yet garnered enough experience to bolt for greener pastures , and a few in-season breaks. We’ve seen Louisville ride with this wave to a No. 6 finish in the final AP polls of both the 2004 and 2006 seasons, as well as to a place in the middle of the CFP discussion for the first 10 weeks of the 2016 campaign.

The second, and I would argue tougher to pull off route, is to steal directly from the plates of the elite in recruiting. Louisville, a program which has never produced a top 25 recruiting class and whose top-rated all-time prospects have historically been locally bred, has rarely dared to extend a hand towards the plates of the Alabamas and Georgias of the world. Until now.

If you’re reading this, you’re well aware of the situation.

The No. 1 ranked running back in the class of 2023 is a kid from Texas who had offers from every major program in the country, including all of the biggest names from the Lone Star State. He committed to Louisville and got “502” tattooed on his arm a few weeks later.

The fifth-ranked wide receiver in the class? He’s coming to Louisville too. The 4-star quarterback of the top-ranked high school team in America? Gonna be a Cardinal. As it stands at the moment, six of the 11 highest-ranked recruits in U of L football history are set to come from the recruiting class of 2023.

By any conventional line of thinking, Louisville is swimming in uncharted waters. It’s imagination, it’s exhilarating, and it’s allowing Cardinal fans to formulate crazy thoughts for the first time since Lamar Jackson was setting fire to record books on a weekly basis.

There is just one problem. Or, better stated, one potential problem.

Louisville is coming off of back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since the final two campaigns (2008-09) of the failed Steve Kragthorpe experiment. U of L hasn’t experienced three straight seasons under .500 since the run of time between 1979-1987 when the school, on multiple occasions, flirted with the notion of giving up the sport entirely.

No member of the loaded 2023 recruiting class has pledged his allegiance to U of L in writing, and none can until Dec. 15. Pierce Clarkson, the St. John Bosco signal caller who has served as the unofficial ring leader of the class since day one, has said in no uncertain terms that a coaching change is the only thing that could keep him from spending his college days in the Derby City. If Clarkson were to cut and run, it’s almost a certainty that a slew of others would follow suit.

If Louisville, which is facing a daunting schedule but which also appears to be loaded with a more complete roster than at any other point in the Scott Satterfield era, were to go 6-6 again or, God forbid, a hair or two worse this season, athletic director Josh Heird would be faced with an unenvious dilemma. Do you part ways with a head coach who has led your football program to depths not known since the 1980s? Or do you keep him for the sole purpose of bringing to campus a level of young talent not known since … ever?

If the choice is option two, then it should be met immediately with a logical follow-up: If this staff couldn’t get Malik Cunningham and company to produce even a good season, why should we expect them to be able to talk all of this talent and mold it into something special? Because special is still the goal for Louisville football. Or at least it should be. If it isn’t, why are we even getting all worked up about this in the first place?

Whenever Louisville football stumbles and fans begin to express a degree of unhappiness, there is a portion of our fan base that retreats to the same safe house and lobs the same lines that I’ve heard since I was a teenager (which was the first period of time Cardinal football started to have actual expectations).

Our fans are so spoiled now.

Let’s not forget that we used to play in a Minor League baseball stadium with maybe 5,000 people in attendance.

Louisville almost quit football entirely at multiple points during the ’70s and ’80s.

Lots of programs would kill to have seven or eight win seasons.

We’re not Ohio State or Alabama, I don’t know how some of our fans don’t get that.

None of these notions are off-base, but the accuracy of the statements isn’t the issue. The issue is that at the slightest hint of controversy, some Louisville fans are all too eager to run and hide behind a group of statements whose relevance to the program should have worn out a while ago.

Don’t get me wrong, juxtaposing where the program is (in the ACC, with state of the art facilities and a relatively rich recent history) with where it was (getting its ass beat with regularity in front of a smattering of fans at Old Cardinal Stadium) is important and it speaks volumes. What it isn’t is a universal excuse that should be paraded around every time Louisville football’s stock takes a dramatic dip. There was a time when the ugly history was so recent that it could apply to anything going on with the program, but we’re past that now. Or, again, at least we should be.

It’d be one thing if the then to now had been a slow build that currently had us all dreaming out what this program could be, but Louisville football has already been great. As mentioned earlier, not only has it been great, it has flirted with the most extreme level of greatness. To use yet another slogan from a bygone era, we know that greatness is possible here.

This is a program that has finished in the top six nationally twice in the last two decades, and the top 15 four times. It’s been talked about as a preseason national title contender multiple times, and it’s been in the national title conversation in November multiple times. It’s produced a Heisman Trophy winner and a handful of NFL superstars. It’s gone from no home to Conference USA to the ACC in a blink of the sporting eye.

The “aww shucks” routine doesn’t play anymore, and it shouldn’t.

That isn’t to say that Louisville is firmly established as a powerhouse or an also-ran in the hierarchy of college football. In fact, I think it’s still one of the very few programs that isn’t established as anything.

My concern, is that it’s starting to become established as one of the amorphous blob of power conference also-rans that are resigned to top out at eight or nine wins during their best of years. Louisville isn’t a program that should expect to be ranked somewhere in the top 10 or top 15 on an annual basis, I get it, and I agree. It also isn’t a program whose fans should be forced to give up on the grandest of dreams entirely.

For me — and I can only speak for myself — all of this boils down to one straightforward and unbending (and, perhaps, irrational) declaration: I want to see Louisville win a national championship in football before I die.

Back in 2014, when Louisville made the move to the ACC, if you’d asked every member of the fan base whether or not they believed they’d see the Cardinals win a national title in their lifetime, my assumption is a majority would have said yes. And it would have seemed like the safe answer. U of L was coming off two seasons in which they’d lost a combined three games, the high of defeating Florida in the Sugar Bowl was still lingering, as were the top six finishes from 2004 and 2006.

That was the dream then, and there’s no reason it still shouldn’t be the dream now. But it’s hard to escape the feeling that the dream has been fading.

Enter this unexpected and intoxicating recruiting uptick.

There’s no guarantee that all of these kids will make it to campus, there’s no guarantee that all of them will reach the level that their rankings indicate they will, and there’s no guarantee that the 2023 class won’t wind up existing as a one- off. But, the collection of talent that Satterfield, Pete Thomas, Pete Nochta and company have accumulated feels like the best vehicle Louisville has had access to in years when it comes to traversing the road to special.

You don’t get to take the ride without a license. If Satterfield and company want to keep steering the car, they need to prove they’re worthy of hanging onto the keys by doing the most basic thing that comes with this job: They’ve gotta start winning some games. That starts Saturday night.

Special should still be the goal, but good has to come first. Let’s have ourselves a season.

Beat Syracuse.