- Andrea Adelson, ESPN Staff Writer
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Through three weeks of the season, the Big East has more unbeaten national title contenders than the Big Ten.
You read that right. In fact, the Big East has the same number of undefeated teams as the Big Ten, as No. 20 Louisville, Cincinnati and Rutgers all have unblemished records. But the spotlight of this column is squarely on the Cardinals, the preseason favorite, the only ranked Big East team in the Top 25 and the only Big East team with a player catching some early Heisman buzz in Teddy Bridgewater.
Given the national attention the Cardinals have received, and their 3-0 start to the season, the logical next question then becomes: Does this team have what it takes to run the table?
While it may seem early to ask a pretty audacious question, this team should be 5-0 headed into Big East play. There have been plenty of encouraging signs that point to a special season underway. That includes the near collapse last week to North Carolina. Though that 39-34 final score may leave some non-Cardinals fans scratching their heads, playing a close one against North Carolina and making the huge defensive play to win the game will help this team as the season goes on.
Coach Charlie Strong already plans on using that game as a teachable moment. As in: you cannot lose focus or take your gas off the pedal. Going up 36-7 at halftime is not good enough. There is no time to relax in any college football game. Of course, Louisville could have learned that against Kentucky and Missouri State, but the Tar Heels game was the most blatant example.
While Louisville has gotten all the preseason accolades, it is important to keep in mind this is still an extremely young team with only 10 scholarship seniors. Six of them are starters. Louisville had a few breakdowns last season in losses directly attributed to youth. So going through some adversity while picking up a win is huge for the growth and maturity of this team.
"What’s key is we won the football game, and we were able to make a play at the end," Strong said Monday. "When you're dealing with a young team, it’s all about the focus ... but it’s always a teachable moment because now, I always say this: if we go beat a team like that by 30 or 40, what do we gain and do they get full of themselves and think they’re better than what they are? We can look back at this moment, and say, 'This is why we still have to get better.'"
The schedule plays out in favor of Louisville as well.
The Cardinals play at FIU (1-2) this Saturday, then travel to Southern Miss (0-2) next week, then get a bye before Big East play begins. FIU upset Louisville last year, but the Panthers are not nearly as good as they were a year ago. One big reason why? They don't have T.Y. Hilton, who absolutely torched Louisville with big plays.
Southern Miss is not as good as it was a year ago, either, with a new head coach and new starter at quarterback. Louisville should win both of those games.
That leads to Big East play. The Cardinals get three straight home games in October, including rival Cincinnati. It closes the season at Rutgers in what many believe could be the de facto Big East championship game. No question there are some tough tests remaining. After all, no Big East team has gone undefeated in the league since Cincinnati did it in 2009.
A tall task awaits. But having a player like Bridgewater certainly helps the cause. Bridgewater has thrown for 855 yards and five touchdowns this season, and ranks second nationally in completion percentage at 81.8 percent. Just as significant: Bridgewater has yet to throw an interception. In 10 starts last season, he only accomplished that feat twice.
Should Louisville do the improbable and go undefeated, the Big East would obviously be incredibly well served. The Big East needs a remaining league team to run the table, especially with the re-branding effort underway. Would the Cardinals be in the national championship hunt? That all depends largely on everybody else. There are only a handful of ranked teams that have looked impressive, so Louisville would at least be in the conversation.
At this point, the down-on-its luck Big East will take that.