Louisville has made a lot of strides this year under first-year coach Charlie Strong. That much is undeniable. But unless the Cardinals can win at Rutgers on Friday, their season will end the same way it has the previous three years: at home without a bowl.
"Going to a bowl game would say we're taking major steps in trying to get this program back in the right direction," Strong said.
Of course, not many people projected that Louisville would make a postseason game this year. But if the 5-6 team fails to get there now, it would feel like a disappointment. The Cardinals were 5-4 after beating Syracuse two weeks ago, but since then they've dropped two straight games at home, including an overtime loss to South Florida in a game they led 14-3.
The pressure, then, is on. Strong called it "a one-game playoff." But he's trying not to put a burden on his players.
"What we have to do is prepare our guys," he said. "If we prepare our guys the right way, they'll feel no pressure."
Louisville has been in this situation before. Two years ago, it went to Piscataway with the same record, needing a win for bowl eligibility. It left with a humiliating 63-14 loss. Rutgers led 49-0 at halftime in perhaps the lowest of the many low points in the Steve Kragthorpe era.
That Scarlet Knights team, though, was on a roll late in the season. This one has lost four straight and is coming off its own embarrassing defeat, a 69-38 thrashing at Cincinnati on Saturday. By comparison, the Cardinals have far fewer issues.
One of their glaring issues, however, is revving up a flat offense. That offense produced just three points in last week's 17-10 loss to West Virginia and committed too many mistakes down the stretch in the overtime loss to South Florida.
The attack has become too one-dimensional, as the team has not passed for more than 146 yards in its last four games. Justin Burke will make his fourth straight start at quarterback Friday in place of still-injured Adam Froman. Still, one-dimensional is OK as long as that dimension is really powerful.
"We've got to get back to our bread and butter," Burke said. "We've got to run the football."
Star tailback Bilal Powell came down with the flu bug late last week and had no yards on just four carries against West Virginia. Strong said Powell should be healthy and ready to go Friday.
Getting to a bowl game would be a reward for Louisville's 27-man senior class, which has never experienced the postseason. And with all those players leaving after this season, the 15 extra bowl practices would help Strong get a jump start on preparing younger players to take over in 2011. Mostly, though, a bowl game would be a signal that things really have changed.
"It would put some hope back into this program," Strong said.