On Saturday Louisville will be the epicenter of college football as one of the premier sports shows moves into town to cover the top 10 match-up between the #10 ranked Cardinals and the #2 ranked Seminoles. Of course I’m talking about ESPN’s College Gameday. If you have been a Louisville Football fan long enough then you know how big this moment is for the program and the journey it has taken to get here.
In order to know where you’re at you must understand what it took to get you there. Once thought to be a cheap knockoff of the Saturday College football ESPN show was the ESPN Thursday night college game of the week. Tom Jurich will soon celebrate his 19th anniversary as the Cardinals athletic director. The impact he’s had on the Louisville athletic programs are nothing short of amazing, and a huge factor in all of the success especially as far as the football program is concerned can be directly linked to his willingness to be a part of those ESPN weekly college football games. Jurich was quoted after he was hired saying “The thing we need to do right away is to get exposure and get this program branded, and that is something I feel is most essential.”
The Cardinals played in those mid-week games throughout the 90’s, but those games were regional broadcast and it wasn’t until ESPN that those games went national. Louisville football had five national telecasts on ESPN or ESPN2 during the 2001 season and mid-week games were a big reason why. In the ten years prior Louisville had a total of 28 games broadcast. Since 2001 Louisville has regularly appeared on national television and the surge in nationally broadcast games is linked to Louisville’s embrace of weeknight games. Louisville has had a total of 19 appearances on ESPN Thursday night telecast. Jurich was quoted saying “That’s helped us immensely; ESPN has helped us build this program. I look at them as a full partner.”
The emergence of the Louisville football program happened on those ESPN Thursday nights. Having the undivided attention of college football fans across the country paid off, and the Cardinals haven’t disappointed. Ironically it was the game in 2002 against Florida State on a Thursday night that got it all started in a big way when the Cardinals beat the #4 Seminoles in OT 26-20.
Everything comes full circle and now a nationally known program the Cardinals find themselves playing in what will be the biggest 2016 college football game to date. And again it is against the Florida State Seminoles. This time it will be on a Saturday afternoon and this time the entire college football world will be watching.
Saturday’s meeting will be the 17th in the series, with the Seminoles owning a 14-2 advantage. Florida State has won the last two meetings in the series despite the Cardinals having a lead in both contests. Last season, the Cardinals enjoyed a 7-6 advantage before being out-scored 35-14 in the second half. The Cardinals raced out to a 21-0 second-quarter lead on No. 2 Florida State in 2014, before the Seminoles came back for a 42-31 win. The Cardinals are 1-5 against the Seminoles in Louisville with the lone win coming in that 2002 match-up.
To be the best you have to beat the best. And one of the best programs in the country is Florida State. Most pundits picked the Seminoles to make the College Football playoff this season, and with good reason. They have speed, athleticism and talent all over the field.
As with any football program it all starts with the head man. Two games into his seventh year as the FSU head coach, Jimbo Fisher has authored one of the most successful starts to a head coaching career in college football history. Fisher’s 68 wins are the most in major college football history during a coach’s first six seasons. Fisher’s .833 winning percentage is by far the highest of any ACC coach of all-time, surpassing Seminole legend Bobby Bowden. This will be Florida State’s 10th College GameDay appearance under coach Jimbo Fisher. The Noles are 7-2 in that span.
Leading the Florida state offensive attack is QB Deondre Francois. He was ranked in the top 40 among high school QB’s in the ESPN class of 2015. Red-shirt Freshman Francois much like former standout Jameis Winston is a big time talent. Francois is more of a running threat. Through two games he is 58 of 84 for 69 percent, 5 touchdowns, 1 interception, 340.5 pass yards and a 154.4 efficiency rating. Not quite the video game numbers of Jackson but Francois is a legit talent.
At the other Florida state skill positions the cupboard is filled with talent. And at the top of that talent pool is RB Dalvin Cook. This guys is the leader of this team and maybe the best back ever for their program. This guy has explosion, speed and power coupled with great vision on the football field. He had 1691 yards and 19 touchdowns last season shattering the FSU rush record. The most impressive stat that stood out to me was that almost 700 of those yards were after contact. Through two games this season he has 174 yards and 2 touchdowns. As if it wasn’t hard enough to stop this guy on the ground he also is great at catching the ball out of the backfield. He had 101 yards receiving against Ole Miss.
FSU Wide Receivers Travis Rudolph, Bobo Wilson and Kermit Whitfield are among the nation’s most experienced receivers in the country and all three have lived up to that billing so far this season. Whitfield is one of the most versatile athletes in the country. He had 57 catches in 2015 and already has 7 catches for 70 yards this season. Wilson had 58 catches in 2015 and has 13 grabs for 178 yards this season. Rudolph led this trio with 59 catches in 2015 and so far this season is the leading receiver on the team with 13 grabs for 179 yards and 3 touchdowns. They are the only trio in the country to return with 55+ catches last season. Additionally, Rudolph and Wilson are among the ACC’s top 10 active leaders in career receptions and yards.
FSU had the same question mark about their offensive line coming into this season as the Cardinals. They have a talented group with a lot of potential but they are a group with not much experience under their belt. FSU returns every single scholarship lineman from 2015, which featured 12 players in their first or second years in the program. FSU is known for developing great offensive lineman and sending them to the NFL so you can bet that this will be a competitive group.
The only chink I found researching this Florida State team is that their defense will be without their most talented player on Saturday. Safety Derwin James will miss 5-7 weeks after having surgery to repair a torn meniscus. While this is a big loss for FSU they still have one of the best defensive units in the country. Probably their next best guy behind James is senior defensive end DeMarcus Walker. In his last three games vs. FBS teams, Walker has staked his claim as one of the nation’s best players totaling 28 tackles, 8 tackles for loss, 7 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 1 interception and 1 blocked kick. With 17 career sacks Walker is the ACC’s active sacks and tackles for loss (28.0) leader. He had 4.5 of each in the season opener against Ole Miss. Speed kills and this FSU defense has it flying all over the field. Through two games, the Florida State defense has forced seven turnovers against Ole Miss and Charleston Southern. They have allowed fewer than 10 points in 27.3 percent of the 84 games Fisher has been the Seminoles head coach and even without James I look for this to be the biggest challenge of the season for the Cardinals offense.
This game will also be one of the biggest challenges of the season for the Louisville defense. In two career games versus the Cardinals, Dalvin Cook has totaled 373 all-purpose yards and scored four touchdowns. He has rushed for 273 yards on just 31 carries (8.8 ypc) and caught eight passes for 100 yards. He’s averaging 186.5 total yards per game versus the home team. The Cardinals will need huge games from just about everybody on Saturday in order to stop this human steam roller. I look for Devonte Fields, DeAngelo Brown, Keith Kelsey, Josh Harvey Clemons and James Hearns to lead the way Saturday. Through two games this season Fields (8 tackles, 1 sack, 1 pat down), Brown (3 tackles), Kelsey (14 tackles, .5 sacks), Clemons (9 tackles) and Hearns (7 tackles, 2.5 sacks) have lived up to their billing. No reason to think this group won’t step up in this big-time game.
If our Cardinals can win this game on Saturday it will have a lot of major implications but the biggest may be the first ever Heisman Trophy for the program. Through two games this season Lamar Jackson is putting up video game numbers and has put the Cardinals offense on his back. If he can continue to play at the same level every week he is on pace to finish this season with 3,485 passing yards, 1,590 rushing yards and 65 total touchdowns. With Jackson being a Florida kid this game has more on the line than just stats and a win or loss. This one is also for pride. It’s going to be fun watching him shine.
This will also be a week where other talent will need to rise to the occasion. Jamari Staples and James Quick have also started this season on a tear. Staples is leading the way with 9 catches for 219 yards and Quick with 5 receptions for 140 yards and 2 touchdowns. These guys won’t have to contend with Derwin James on Saturday but will still face a stiff challenge. The Cardinals will also need a big game from Jaylen Smith and Cole Hikutini. Third and fourth in production so far this season these guys should have some room with the focus mainly on the first three guys mentioned. Hikutini had a rough outing last time out and the usually sure handed Tight End dropped several passes. He is the kind of guy that plays with something to prove so look for a big rebound game against the Noles.
Reggie Bonnafon has had a modest start to the 2016 season with 33 yards and 1 touchdown. But this is a week where we could see some crafty offensive sets featuring the hometown hero. If the Cardinals win this game you can bet that Reggie will have played a part in the outcome somehow. Same goes for Brandon Radcliff. He has more heart than any player I’ve covered in 4 years with The Cardinal’s Beak. There won’t be a guy on the football field Saturday playing with more pride for his program than Brandon. Coach Klenakis has been very proud of his unit through two games this season, but with their biggest challenge looming this could put the Louisville offensive front on the map. Football games are won in the trenches and this game is the proving ground.
As if the football game itself wasn’t big enough on Saturday the University of Louisville football program will take the day to honor the greatest of all time Muhammad Ali. Ali has inspired generations of people and made them move. Out of all of the dedications that will be made on Saturday to this special man the best tribute would be one of the biggest wins in program history. Factoring in everything that I’ve researched and taking into account all of the pomp and circumstance surrounding this football game I do think the Cardinals will win. The Louisville football players and Louisville fans have waited for this moment. Our players deserve this and the fans deserve this. Take it all in Saturday folks. This will be one of those moments you’ll remember for a lifetime. Go Cards!