ORLANDO, Fla. -- The season started the way everybody anticipated it would: Teddy Bridgewater, nearly flawless, standing and delivering one perfectly thrown spiral after another, zipping completions on his first nine passes, tossing five touchdowns in all before taking a seat on the bench in the fourth quarter.
His performance in a 49-7 win over Ohio -- 23-of-28 for 355 yards -- should have served as confirmation that Bridgewater belonged in the elite quarterback conversation. Instead, his performance set the standard into the stratosphere and ended up being used against him.
Bridgewater had the best statistical season of his career. But the stats also show 30 points scored against Temple, 20 against Houston, 24 against Memphis, and a stunning loss to UCF.
Fair or not, Bridgewater was penalized for not putting up even bigger numbers against one of the weakest schedules in the country. As soon as the Cardinals lost, he was dropped from awards consideration.
A player who was tabbed as the Heisman favorite following the Ohio game ended the regular season in virtual anonymity on the college stage, despite his team's 11-1 record this year and 22-3 mark over the past two seasons. Jameis Winston won the Heisman; AJ McCarron, Jordan Lynch and Johnny Manziel secured invites to New York.
Bridgewater sat at home. Though he eschewed any sort of Heisman campaign in the preseason and has shied away from the spotlight his entire career, Bridgewater was a little miffed his performance was mostly ignored.
But not entirely ignored. ESPN draft experts Todd McShay and Mel Kiper list him as their No. 1 quarterback prospect for 2014, making Bridgewater the most underrated and highly rated signal caller in the country all at once.
Bridgewater has not decided whether to stay in school or enter the NFL draft and says he will start weighing his options after the Russell Athletic Bowl against Miami on Saturday. The game provides another opportunity to show what he can do, against the team he nearly ended up signing with out of high school in 2011, making this game must-see TV.
Whether he goes or not, NFL scouts will continue to chart his every move as they evaluate where Bridgewater stands.
"The guys who know, the NFL guys who see him making decisions and see him functioning in the pocket, keeping the ball down and how he manages us, manages the game, have a lot of respect for his work," Louisville offensive coordinator Shawn Watson said. "It's at a real high level."
Watson has found himself defending his offense from critics who believe the Cardinals underachieved in points scored and total offense given the talent at quarterback and receiver. But Bridgewater posted a career-high 70.2 percent completion percentage, a career-high 28 touchdown passes, and a career-low four interceptions (only two were on him). He needs 196 yards against Miami to set a new career high for passing yards, too.
Yet when you are the quarterback, the total picture enhances a performance -- or takes away from a performance. There were not as many explosive plays as anticipated. In four games this season, Bridgewater threw either zero or one touchdown pass.
There are explanations. Coach Charlie Strong preaches balance. The goal always is to try to run the ball, not toss the ball all over the yard. Strong held firm to that philosophy all season, even though Louisville struggled to run the ball consistently. Secondly, the offensive line was banged up, impeding the types of calls Louisville could make in the passing game. Third, the Louisville receiving corps had its share of drops that ended drives, as well.
What Watson points to is where Bridgewater stands as a total package. Not only can Bridgewater manage a game, read defenses and make the proper checks at the line, Watson added a new wrinkle this year. Bridgewater uses dummy calls and dummy signals to confuse opposing defenses.
"It's part of the way I grade him," Watson says. "I give him a dummy signal chart. We put in red the ones that are live. The ones in black are dummy calls; 50-50 split. We want them to stay masked. They're very confusing. So it's football beyond your normal everyday football. He's on another level."
Bridgewater was on a different level in high school, too, making him one of the most sought after prospects in the country. He initially committed to Miami but backed out after Randy Shannon was fired in December 2010. Bridgewater then had an interest in LSU but changed his mind after the Tigers canceled his on-campus visit to go and see another quarterback.
Miami coach Al Golden tried to sway Bridgewater to stay and play for his hometown team, but Bridgewater felt he needed to leave the South Florida area. He ended up at Louisville thanks to a connection with assistant Clint Hurtt, who worked on the Miami staff with Shannon.
Bridgewater is not the only Louisville player with South Florida ties. Some 30 players on the Cardinals' roster are from the area, giving this game a little extra meaning.
"It's exciting, if anything," Bridgewater said. "We have bragging rights on the line."
Bridgewater has more on the line than that. Especially with all eyes on him, the way they were to start the season.