When Louisville entered spring practice a year ago, the Cardinals were in a brand new spot as favorites, not underdogs.
That status has only been amplified headed into spring practice this year. When players and coaches take the field this afternoon to begin preparations for the 2013 season, Louisville will no longer be a regional team plodding along in a limping conference.
It will be a team with a national following, with preseason top 10 expectations and questions not about whether it can win a league title. Questions will linger about whether this team can put itself in position to win a national title.
As much as coaches want their players to live in a vacuum, there is no ignoring reality.
"There’s no question that the pressure’s going to be on us this year," offensive guard Jake Smith said in a recent phone interview. "There’s going to be a bulls eye on our back with everybody we play, so this offseason the coaches have been preparing us for that and really been putting the pressure on us in workouts and making sure we don’t get complacent like we did last year because there’s always room for improvement. We still lost two games. We’re going into next season and we don’t want to lose any games. It’s all about knowing how to win, learning how to win and learning how to be a consistent winner."
As Smith points out, Louisville got off to a school-best 9-0 start last season and No. 9 ranking in the BCS, until losses to Syracuse and UConn threatened to derail the season. Smith said the Cardinals were able to learn much more from the two losses than the 11 wins last season, because they were teachable moments.
"They really exposed our two weaknesses on both sides of the ball," Smith said. "Syracuse exposed our defense and Connecticut exposed our offense and whenever you have that in the back of your mind, you know you’re not invincible like you thought when you were 9-0. To have a perfect season, a lot of things have to fall your way. We’ll have to see how it goes but we’re reminded of that pretty often by these coaches."
Still, a perfect season is not out of the realm considering several factors. First, Louisville returns a majority of its starters, including preseason Heisman candidate Teddy Bridgewater.
Two, the Cardinals should be favorite in every game this season. Their nonconference schedule is especially weak, and would be used as huge knock against anything this team accomplishes, if an undefeated season is in the cards.
"Anything short of winning every game this year is going to be a disappointment for us," Smith said. "We know that. With some added maturity, with a lot of guys coming back, you can go one of two ways. You can dwell on the season you had before or you can continue to go in and work and correct the mistakes you made last year and hopefully we won’t have those blunders like we did against Syracuse and Connecticut.
"Who knows if an undefeated season is actually going to happen. I know I don’t, but I certainly expect it. If you think you’re beat, then you’ve already been beat. We go in with the attitude that there’s a certain way you work and there’s a certain way you go about your business and carry yourself and that’s the right way and that’s how you win games and that’s how you build tradition and how champions are made."