CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The headliners were Jimbo Fisher and Dabo Swinney at Friday’s ACC Kickoff, as it has been for the past five years, when either Clemson or Florida State has won the conference each season. And then there was Louisville, perhaps the best-kept secret in college football.
"We have a goal to win a national championship," Cardinals coach Bobby Petrino said, "and I’ve made sure our players understand that."
Petrino’s goal wasn’t to convince the media of the same, but he certainly made his case that the idea wasn’t far-fetched.
On offense, quarterback Lamar Jackson was a revelation down the stretch last season, and now he insists he’ll deliver even bigger results as a sophomore in 2016.
"You’re going to see a whole lot of everything from me," said Jackson, who rushed for 960 yards while learning the ropes of the passing game last season. "Last year we were a young team. This year is a whole other story. We’ve been hitting the books hard."
So, a stellar defense and an electric quarterback coming into his own. Is Louisville really on par with Florida State and Clemson?
"We know it’s a tough road," Petrino said. "We’ve got Clemson and Florida State just in our division, two teams that have been to the national championship game. We know it’s a great challenge, but it’s one we’re certainly looking forward to."
And truth be told, it’s a challenge Florida State and Clemson might not be quite as excited about.
In each of the past two seasons, the Cardinals have taken Clemson to the wire, losing on a goal-line stand and a missed field goal.
Louisville led Florida State at halftime each of the past two seasons, too, including a 7-6 edge last season. The result of that game, however, was a blowout, with the Seminoles winning 41-21. It was a lesson for Jackson.
"We need to score more points," he said in response to a question about how to topple FSU this time around.
It was succinct, but that’s sort of the point. No one on Louisville’s roster thinks the team is that far from overtaking the Atlantic Division elites. It’s just a matter of finishing the drill, edging forward just a tick.
So while Clemson and Florida State took questions about handling expectations, Louisville happily played the part of bridesmaid. No need for the spotlight now.
"They’ll see what’s going to happen this year," Kelsey said. "We’ll just leave it at that."