Tim Sullivan: Louisville Football's Promising Season Headed For Anticlimactic End

Dec 4, 2023 at 11:14 am
Florida State's Jordan Travis (#13) runs down the field as UofL's Yasir Abdullah (#22) tries to intercept him at Cardinal Stadium on Sept. 16, 2022.
Florida State's Jordan Travis (#13) runs down the field as UofL's Yasir Abdullah (#22) tries to intercept him at Cardinal Stadium on Sept. 16, 2022. File photo by Carolyn Brown.

First, Louisville felt Florida State’s pressure. Now, it can feel its pain.

Tackled 14 times behind the line of scrimmage in Saturday’s 16-6 ACC Championship loss to the Seminoles, including seven quarterback sacks, UofL suffered additional indignity Sunday afternoon in the trickle-down trauma of Florida State’s omission from the College Football Playoff.

Undefeated yet ultimately unpersuasive, diminished in the playoff committee’s view by a season-ending injury to star quarterback Jordan Travis, FSU was relegated to the Orange Bowl upon failing to crack college football’s final four. As a result, UofL was bumped from an anticipated New Year’s Six Bowl berth to the comparative obscurity of the DirecTV Holiday Bowl in a jerry-rigged baseball park in San Diego.

Granted, Louisville’s disappointment barely registers beside FSU’s righteous outrage. (“I am disgusted and infuriated,” said Seminoles coach Mike Norvell.) Moreover, the Cardinals can only blame themselves for their many self-inflicted wounds against Pitt and Kentucky and their inability to protect error-prone quarterback Jack Plummer Saturday in Charlotte.

Still, a season that only two weeks ago had carried plausible playoff possibilities now seems sure to end in anticlimax. Though the Cardinals will face one of the college game’s historic blue bloods in the Holiday Bowl — the University of Southern California — the Trojans’ 2022 Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams may choose to opt out as a pre-draft precaution and thereby rob the game of some of its limited luster. (Williams told the Los Angeles Times last week his availability will be a “gametime decision.”)

Such is the fate of football’s also-rans in the last year before the playoff expands from four to 12 teams. Instead of competing for a place in the bracket, Louisville and other schools similarly situated went into their conference championship games in pursuit of the best possible consolation prize.

Beyond the playoff, bowl games exist primarily to promote holiday tourism and provide television programming, to fill hotel rooms and time slots. If they are not entirely meaningless, neither is their lasting significance an easy sell.

Coaches value the additional practices bowl bids allow as a means of getting a jump on the competition, to say nothing of the contractual bonuses they trigger. (UofL’s Jeff Brohm earned $100,000 for attaining bowl eligibility and another $100,000 for reaching the ACC Championship game.) Unsalaried players are rewarded with material goods and gift cards over and above their NIL endorsement income. (Recent Holiday Bowl swag has included watches, wireless speakers, and fleece hoodies.)

But nearly no one pretends a second-tier bowl can define a season, though they can sometimes provide compelling previews of coming attractions. Case in point: An attentive observer could have landed long odds on Lamar Jackson’s Heisman Trophy prospects after his brilliant 2015 Music City Bowl.

That said, this Holiday Bowl is unlikely to change perceptions of Louisville's direction as Brohm completes his first year as the Cardinals’ head coach. Whether UofL finishes with 10 wins or 11, it has far exceeded expectations that included a preseason media poll projection of eighth place in the ACC. Though its regular season ended with a thud heard ‘round the Commonwealth, the Kentucky game drew Louisville’s second record crowd of the season, quieting complaints about the expensive expansion of a heretofore seldom-filled stadium. The Brohm Buzz has not yet subsided.

As a homecoming hero, Brohm began his tenure with the faith of fans who never bought in to Scott Satterfield. He has since provided them with hard evidence to back their beliefs, including a high-profile pounding of Notre Dame and, for a time, a Top 10 national ranking. Now, the prevailing opinion of Louisville fans might be capsulized as follows: Just wait until Brohm finds a quarterback who is more of a star than a stopgap.

All things considered, this is a pretty enviable position for a coach at the close of his first season. The pain inflicted directly by Florida State and as a result of its playoff snub figure to be fleeting, for Louisville’s long-term trajectory appears to be rising.