Louisville has yet another national television game against one of the best teams in its conference, an opportunity to impress viewers and voters again.
But here is the catch. Louisville cannot impress people enough. If the Cardinals beat UCF soundly Friday night, they did what they were supposed to do. If they win a close game, well, they are not as good as advertised.
We already have seen these familiar arguments play out this season. Louisville crushed FIU 72-0, and nobody raised questions. Louisville had a tougher time than expected against Kentucky, and the team had issues.
Simply put, there is nothing much Louisville can do to improve its lot as an outsider in the race to a national championship. The Cardinals can win all they want, but they cannot control their destiny.
Just look at the Associated Press Top 25. Louisville began the season No. 9. Three teams ranked ahead already have lost, yet today, Louisville is ranked No. 8. Two one-loss teams from the SEC are ahead of the Cardinals.
Never mind that the Cardinals beat a team from the SEC in the Allstate Sugar Bowl last season, have one of the best quarterbacks in the country in Teddy Bridgewater and possess a ferocious defense that ranks among the best in the nation. Their strength of schedule is not going to be good enough, and it will not be good enough as the season wears on. Louisville has a victory over winless Temple and a game later this year against winless UConn. FIU has one win. So does future opponent Memphis.
This is the knock against Louisville and will continue to be a knock against Louisville should it keep winning.
“Everybody is complaining about Louisville, but Louisville is winning the games they’re supposed to win,” UCF coach George O’Leary said. “They could beat a lot of teams in this country. I think we overrate a lot of conferences in this country. There’s two or three teams, maybe four at best, in each conference that deserve the adoration they get. The rest are just teams.”
Indeed, conference strength plays a critical role in how teams are rated and ranked. The reconfigured American ranks No. 6 in the latest ESPN Stats & Information conference power rankings, far behind the Big Ten. The Cardinals are not expected to play one ranked team this season.
UCF, though, presents perhaps the biggest challenge to date. The Knights beat Penn State on the road earlier this season and went toe-to-toe with No. 11 South Carolina, holding a halftime lead before eventually losing 28-25.
Blake Bortles is the second-best quarterback in the American behind Bridgewater, a player with a strong arm and a talented, deep group of receivers. His offensive line has been outstanding, giving up eight sacks all season.
On the other side, Bridgewater has put up his usual stats and remains in Heisman contention. But it is the defense that has been truly dominant. In a 24-10 win over Rutgers last week, the Cardinals had eight sacks and four interceptions and allowed just 12 yards rushing, along with 240 yards of total offense.
Louisville has allowed 44 total points in six games this season, leading the nation in scoring defense. It also has 23 total sacks and 57 tackles for loss.
For UCF to have any shot at the upset, it will have to make plays on this defense. History is against the Knights. They have just one win over a ranked opponent in their history, a 37-32 home victory over then-No. 13 Houston on Nov. 14, 2009.
For Louisville, this is one of the last true tests this season. Two teams with winning records remain beyond Friday night -- Houston on Nov. 16 and league rival Cincinnati on the road to close the season. The Cardinals did lose twice last season to unranked teams, but this seems much different. Bridgewater is better, and so is the defense. The competition is not nearly as good.
Just about everybody expects Louisville to win out. But what happens then? We have seen multiple unbeaten teams fail to get a shot at a championship in the BCS era, from Boise State to TCU and, most notably, Auburn in 2004. The first BCS standings come out Sunday, so we will get a much better idea about the uphill climb an unbeaten Louisville team will face.
One thing does seem certain. If the Cards keep winning, they need chaos to come along for the ride.