LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- By this point, the University of Louisville's 2013 football schedule has been the butt of more jokes than airplane food. But over the past couple of weeks, the program has also gotten some serious national attention.
-- Mark Schlabach of ESPN.com rated the Cards No. 4 in his early preseason rankings.
-- Andy Staples of ESPN had them ranked No. 8 in his post-spring Top 25.
-- Athlon Sports listed U of L as No. 9 on its list of "Ten Teams That May End the SEC's Title Streak in '13."
-- Mel Kiper listed U of L quarterback Teddy Bridgewater at No. 2 on his first "Big Board" projection of 2014 NFL Draft picks.
-- Charlie Strong gave a rousing "Riders Up" call on NBC's national telecast of the Kentucky Derby.
-- The Heisman Pundit included Bridgewater on his official Heisman Trophy watch list.
-- Athlon ranked Strong at No. 18 on its list of top coaches in college football
All of this might seem like the usual offseason fodder, and for all intents and purposes, it is. But for U of L, it's anything but meaningless.
College football, more than any other American sport, relies on perception as much as reality. You can "hype" your way to major national awards and, because of the subjectivity of human polls, the buzz around your team can actually make a difference in your poll position and, as a result, your postseason prospects.
U of L doesn't have a national championship profile schedule. No matter how much hype the Cards receive, playing in the title game is a substantial longshot.
But what slim chance it might have would be predicated on substantial national respect and attention.
There was little U of L athletic director Tom Jurich and Charlie Strong could do about the schedule. They worked angles, even offering a couple of big-name programs one-shot deals on the road. Strong talked with Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M about a possible Teddy Bridgewater-Johnny Manziel matchup. In the end, nothing could be worked out and U of L found itself in a scheduling no-man's land at the worst possible time.
One year down the road, the schedule gets much tougher. That won't help this season. But public knowledge that U of L tried various avenues will help.
What also could help is something like Schlabach's No. 4 ranking. If an ESPN national commentator is willing to go Top 5 in the preseason with the Cards, others might have cover to do the same.
Every time a national outlet mentions the words "U of L" and "national championship" in the same sentence, it allows the next one to do it with just a bit less hesitation.
Once they couldn't get marquee names to bite with scheduling offers, Jurich and Strong agreed to any national television deals they could get. They agreed to home games on a Thursday night (Rutgers, Oct. 10) and a Friday night (Central Florida, Oct. 18), even though the Friday game falls on homecoming. And they've moved their opener to a Sunday afternoon 3:30 matchup with Ohio on ESPN Sept. 1. The Cards will have two other national TV games in weeknight road games at Connecticut on Friday, Nov. 8 and at Cincinnati on Thursday, Dec. 5.
Those aren't prime scheduling times for fans, but they are prime times to get the team in front of national audiences with a chance to impress, and with a chance for ESPN to praise its players (given, of course, that the performances are praiseworthy.)
You might say that U of L is trying to make a run at a national title using smoke and mirrors. I would say it is trying to make a run with smoke, mirrors and ESPN.
It's going to take more than that. The Cards are going to have to be extraordinarily impressive against an ordinary schedule. They're going to have to be exciting to watch, and they're going to need to score style points as well as actual points, something they haven't majored in under Charlie Strong.
They might well even benefit from a gimmick.
All of this might sound distasteful to college football purists. But there's no such thing as pure college football, never has been. Hype has always mattered.
And the more U of L gets in this offseason, the better its position will be to withstand the slings and arrows that will inevitably start flying if success starts to come next season.