LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB) -- If you're a University of Louisville football fan (or coach) you can go ahead and blow this story up to convenient poster-size.
I want to make clear that I am one of those who thinks the U of L football program is poised to take a step forward this season. The Cardinals are my pick to win the Big East and go to a BCS bowl. I am one of those idiot pundits that Cardinals coach Charlie Strong is telling his team every day to ignore.
But I also know this: the preseason hype machine is setting the Cardinals up to fall. Strong is right to be wary -- very wary -- of what his players are hearing heading into the start of camp tomorrow. That's why he has seemed perhaps overly harsh at times when talking about his team, "What have we done? We haven't accomplished anything."
On "Pardon the Interruption" earlier this week, Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers made a good observation. He was talking about the Packers getting "too comfortable" as they had more and more success last season, and he said, "When you win games, the big issues become smaller issues, and the smaller issues get kind of swept under the floor."
The same can be said of the situation that arises when a team is picked to win. Everyone focuses on its upside and they forget about the weaknesses.
Football isn't like basketball. It only takes one stumble to screw everything up. And with a young team, it's easy to stumble.
So amid all of the rampant optimism -- and most of it is founded -- here are five caution lights:
1). YOUTH AND LEADERSHIP. If this were a veteran team that had experienced success, being picked to win its conference likely wouldn't be a concern. But this is a young team that, while managing to put together a run late last season to grab a share of the Big East title, also showed a time or two that it could completely lose focus. The team is probably a year away from where Strong thought championship expectations would kick in. But events in the Big East have brought those expectations sooner, and they are going to be a challenge. U of L coaches have been working to identify players suitable for leadership spots, and have tried to groom them. But in the end, the leadership of the team will be decided on the field, and having it emerge -- at least in a quantity enough to navigate a 12 game schedule with only one or two losses -- is hardly a given. 2). CLOSE CALLS. Yes, U of L could be favored in a majority of its games. But it won't be favored by much. When you start to look at each game individually, any sense of championship inevitability begins to be shaken. The Cardinals need to perform better on their home field. Everybody is focused on North Carolina's scholarship restrictions and NCAA problems, but the Tar Heels hired a first-rate coach in Larry Fedora and have eight offensive starters back, including a 1,000-yard rusher. Winning at Southern Miss has never been an easy proposition for U of L, even if the team did suffer some big losses to graduation. Strong has yet to beat Pittsburgh. Cincinnati won 10 games last season and should be good again. The Cards get Connecticut -- which should have one of the league's top defenses -- and Rutgers at the end of the season. The point is, many of these are games you'd expect, on paper in the preseason, U of L to win. But the margins are not great.
3). SCHEDULE. It's strange, while schedule is one reason many are expecting U of L to roll, it also has some quirks that will make things difficult. The Cards will play North Carolina on Sept. 15 in Papa John's Cardinal Stadium. After that, they won't play another home game for a full calendar month, until South Florida comes to town on Oct. 20. There's a bye week in there, and a game at FIU that they should win, but then back-to-back road games at Southern Miss and Pittsburgh (with a week in between) that will be challenges. And U of L's conference schedule is front-loaded. It's first three league games are against Pitt, USF and Cincinnati, all picked in the top five, and even though USF and UC are at home, the UC game is a six-day preparation, one of three "short" game weeks on the slate. No, it's not a murderer's row, and I'm not trying to make it out to be. A program without elite aspirations should handle it. But relative to the youth of this team, it presents problems nonetheless.
4). HISTORY. Several times last season, the Cards regressed after victory. They showed a tendency to let up after they had picked up. They lost to Marshall after beating Kentucky. They lost at Pittsburgh -- though they didn't play poorly -- after beating West Virginia. Now, maybe the team learned the lesson of handling success sufficiently. Maybe going through all that is reason to believe the Cards won't repeat that mistake. But the assumption, because the team is picked to win, is that it has. And assumptions are dangerous. In the Belk Bowl loss to N.C. State, the Cards gave up 12 tackles for loss, including five sacks. There was a great deal to be excited about late last season. But the mistakes, by no means, had been eliminated, even though the team had been through all those ups and downs last season. A lot of those same mistakes are going to have to disappear for this team to do as well as it is being picked to do. 5). DON'T FORGET ABOUT KENTUCKY. Think about this, just for argument's sake. U of L finished its season by losing to an N.C. State team ranked No. 57 in the Belk Bowl. UK finished last season by beating a Tennessee team ranked No. 50 -- with a quarterback who had never played a college game at the position. Now, yes, U of L's was a road game, but you see the point. UK isn't without players. I don't think it has the offensive weapons to win at U of L. But if ever playing the opener favored UK, it is this season, after a young U of L team has experienced nothing but back-slapping from its fans and the media all summer. It's a rare situation where UK has a psychological edge (and one reason I thought UK was wrong to put up what seems like a hundred billboards in the city of Louisville). If U of L doesn't come up to this game right, it could be disastrous for the Cardinals. And the fact that so many see that as unthinkable is one reason it ought to be treated as a real possibility.
Maybe all this is searching for dark clouds. But the fact is, this team has yet to show the kind of consistency and dominance that garnering 24 out of 28 Big East first-place votes indicate it is predicted to show. The good news is that most of these concerns are intangible things. You're not talking about a team with gaping talent holes at any position. If I were a coach, I'd rather be struggling with getting a team right psychologically and from an execution standpoint than wondering who was going to play on the defensive line. Still, when you get a wealth of expectations without having performed at that predicted level just yet, you have a recipe for underachievement. That's what Strong is fighting against.
Copyright 2012 WDRB News. All Rights Reserved.
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