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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Louisville can’t help reflecting on the ironies of finally reaching the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game.
For all the summer aspirations of competing for a title, the Cardinals were adjusting to Jeff Brohm, a native son and program great who accepted his alma mater’s second overture last December four years after turning it down while building Purdue into a Big Ten contender. The transition included learning a new staff and blending more than two dozen transfers.
Those realities explain why they received no first-place votes in the preseason media poll and were picked to finish eighth in the 14-team league. And other than sharing the Atlantic Division title with Clemson in 2016 thanks to eventual Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson, Louisville hadn’t been a serious ACC contender since entering in ’14.
But here are the No. 15 Cardinals (10-2, 7-1 ACC, No. 14 CFP ), looking to add to their remarkable season with that first ACC title they always dreamed of. The chance comes later than originally expected but is obviously ahead of schedule given the circumstances. Either way, Louisville aims to take full advantage of it Saturday night in Charlotte against No. 4 Florida State.
“It drives us,” Louisville sophomore linebacker T.J. Quinn said. “That’s something that nobody can ever take from you — being the first team to win a championship. With everything we’ve been through this season, to just see the reward that we can possibly get. We just can’t let the pressure get to us.”
In a fitting twist, Louisville must clear a familiar hurdle in the Seminoles (12-0, 8-0 ACC, No. 4 CFP ). FSU and Clemson were the Cardinals' targets upon joining the league, with the ‘Noles fresh off a national championship and pursuing another before the Tigers assumed the mantle as ACC heavyweight.
Louisville finally broke through against FSU in 2016 with an epic 63-20 win led by Jackson’s five-touchdown, 372-yard signature offensive performance that established him as the Heisman Trophy favorite and eventually its youngest winner. The series has swung both ways since then with FSU winning the past two matchups, but neither the ‘Noles nor Tigers were on this year’s schedule.
Those absences have sparked scrutiny of the Cardinals’ record, but they’ve handled the challenges in front of them — most notably, topping then-No. 10 Notre Dame (33-20) and then-No. 20 Duke (23-0) at home along with earning key league road victories. Louisville has its first 10-win season since 2013 as a result and is eager to keep proving it’s no fluke.
“Our guys have played with a chip on their shoulders,” said Brohm, who is the first NCAA coach to take two different programs to conference title games in consecutive seasons. He guided Purdue to last year’s Big Ten championship game against Michigan.
“They’re hungry and they have been all year, so I give them a lot of credit for that. ... We know what we’re capable of, and because of that we understand that if we can put it all together for one game and four quarters, yeah, anything can happen.”
That Louisville is making it happen under Brohm isn't surprising. The former standout Cardinals quarterback under coaching great Howard Schnellenberger and onetime assistant under Bobby Petrino at UofL and Western Kentucky has built his own successful head coaching resume through high-powered offense and a keen respect for defense.
The Cardinals head to Charlotte ranked 19th nationally in total defense (314.7 yards allowed per game), 26th on offense (438.6) and 31st in scoring (33.0 points).
It’s why the school targeted Brohm after firing Petrino in 2018 following a 2-8 start to the fifth year of his second coaching stint and eventual 2-10 finish. The timing then wasn’t right, the coach acknowledged, but he accepted the second offer last fall to build on a team coming off an 8-5 finish with a Fenway Bowl victory.
While that raised expectations for the program, no one foresaw Louisville reaching this level, favorable schedule or not. At least, not right away.
“I think we knew the potential we had,” center Bryan Hudson said, “but they did a great job of taking us week to week and just continuing to improve us as a team all throughout the year. It means everything for us to get to this point.”
Louisville now has the chance to add its first trophy since winning the Big East title in 2012. A New Year’s Six bowl game is also in play, with the destination depending on the outcome and how the College Football Playoff field is set.
But just as projections were tempered when the season started, Louisville athletic director Josh Heird notes that maintaining what happens beyond this weekend is the real job. The Cardinals are in a very good place regardless, and the timetable doesn’t matter.
“I did think that Jeff would come in right away and energize the fan base and create some optimism that hadn’t been there as far as what this program could be,” he said.
“It’s year one, so you’re trying to build a foundation to be able to sustain something, to build a program that is going to continually be one of the best in the country. That’s I know that’s Jeff’s goal, I know that’s my goal.”
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