We're still in early May, still 16 weeks until the college football regular season, and thus the Summer of Louisville can continue to proceed happily.
It's been a dream year for Cardinals fans, the hopelessness of Big East purgatory turning into ACC gold, a Sugar Bowl win over Florida, a men's basketball national championship, a women's basketball Final Four, the return of potential No. 1 pick Teddy Bridgewater to quarterback Cardinals football into 2013, the return of coach Charlie Strong despite overtures from Tennessee ... Everything has fallen into place, and one bowl victory last January has pushed football expectations to newfound heights.
Because no matter how expansive the college bowl schedule becomes, no matter how many six-loss teams are included, we have been conditioned over decades to measure programs by bowl appearances and bowl wins, to ascribe some sort of greater meaning to winning a bowl game, as if victory in something called the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl at a neutral site near a beach after final exams is somehow more impressive than beating a top conference rival on the road in October.
So, we move through the offseason needing to address the case of Louisville, Sugar Bowl champions, and this year's clear beneficiary of the bowl bump, the annual tradition of ranking a team higher in the preseason because it notched an impressive win to end last season -- ignoring the fact that the Cardinals also crumbled against Syracuse and lost to Connecticut.
Last year, West Virginia got the closest thing to the Louisville treatment after its 70-point effort against Clemson in the Orange Bowl, resulting in a preseason No. 11 ranking (or, in some places, higher) and a label as Big 12 title contender in its first season in the conference. For five games, despite a nonexistent defense, the hype looked brilliant. Then the bottom fell out, and it became embarrassing that anyone -- this includes me, regrettably -- thought of the Mountaineers as prime contenders for a BCS bid, despite Geno Smith's unsustainable numbers and a thin defense exposed by the leap in competition from the Big East.
It's not new, of course. Any college football poll, whether it's preseason, mid-October or postseason, suffers from recency bias. It's been a problem for a century, where a loss early in the season is better than a loss late in the season because it gives a team more time to make up ground, and a September loss can be largely forgotten when somebody else screws up in November. Louisville will undoubtedly be ranked higher than 11th, possibly even in the top five, and its schedule may allow it to stay there for the duration of the 2013 season, even if it doesn't truly belong there.
Because bowl games have been built up as somehow greater than an ordinary game, we add weight to their results. Louisville's best win of the season was against Florida in the Sugar Bowl, so it makes sense to give it added weight after a bland Big East regular season. But bowl games always have somewhat twisted atmospheres, between the long layoffs, a week in a different environment -- many of which are filled with distractions -- and differing levels of motivation. We make them mean something because they're rewards for good seasons, but, really, what does winning the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl against a fifth-place team from another conference actually prove? It's a happy way to send off seniors, and a pleasant vacation excuse for fans, and while beating Florida is certainly impressive, it's important not to get too tied up in the small sample size of any one bowl result, especially when the annual roster turnover in college sports means that 2013 Louisville will not totally resemble 2012 Louisville, and neither will the context in which it plays.
Thankfully, this is the last season of the practice of polls deciding the national championship. The new selection committee for the College Football Playoff will undoubtedly have it own lengthy set of issues that we will shout and cry about, but selecting four teams is better than two, and the committee's criteria will, hopefully, be more specifically defined than the made-up criteria used by those who vote in the coaches' and Harris polls, a group of people who don't necessarily watch a lot of games, have clear conflicts of interest and vote differently based on what they individually think the poll is supposed to be.
Preseason polls are the biggest culprit, because while they're fun debate fodder, they include two distinct methods of selection: the people who vote for who they think is the best team (the proper method, even if inherently flawed), and the people who vote for who they think will have the best season (which factors in scheduling, before a game even takes place). Done properly (as properly as comparing 125 teams based on a handful of games can be), voting over the course of the season should slide from one end of the spectrum to the other: how good you think a team is to how good you know a team is, over the course of a season in which hard evidence is collected.
Louisville will be ranked highly in the preseason not only because it beat Florida and is returning a lot of starters (including a star quarterback), but because people think the Cardinals will go undefeated with an easy schedule. Here, of course, is the flawed thinking in college football, where a hypothetical 12-0 Louisville team that cruises through the fake Big East/The American can be considered better than a hypothetical 10-2 Texas A&M team that loses to Alabama and LSU. Rewarding a weak path in November makes no sense; rewarding that weak path purely based on speculation in August makes even less sense, especially when polls ultimately still help decide the national champion.
Just look at the schedule. Alabama may have gotten a ridiculous break by missing Georgia, Florida and South Carolina from the SEC East, but its schedule still includes headliners Texas A&M, LSU and Virginia Tech, while Louisville's three best opponents are some combination of Rutgers, UCF, Houston, Connecticut and Cincinnati. There's no contest here.
Louisville may very well be talented enough to warrant a top-five ranking, but if the Cardinals take care of business and win every game -- they will likely be favored every week -- will we really ever know how good they actually are? It will be November, they'll beat Houston and Memphis, and we'll still be thinking back to the previous January against Florida as the best evidence that the Cardinals belong among the sport's best.
It's the perfect storm, really. Combine the Sugar Bowl triumph with the big-name quarterback and what appears to be a cupcake-filled schedule, and everything lines up for a dream season, record-wise, setting up what could be one final chaotic BCS debate. We get both the bowl bump and the schedule bump, the two things that are easiest to look at over the course of a long offseason when evaluating potential contenders.
Of course, the other likely scenario is that, being Louisville and not Alabama, the Cardinals will lose at Temple on Oct. 5, or something similar, and render all the hype moot, like other beneficiaries/victims of bowl bumps past.
Either way, remember that last year's Louisville team also lost to a pair of mediocre teams, won six of its games by one score or less, was dreadful on special teams and couldn't run the ball for much of the season. If we're going to use last season as a guide for predicting this season -- which, really, we have to do - then we at least have to look at the whole picture and look at wider trends.
Maybe Louisville really is a top-five team. A case can probably be made. But of all things, one bowl game isn't enough evidence to make that leap.
Positive Bowl Bumps
Louisville is far and away going to be this year's grand recipient of the bowl bump. Two other teams that might have slightly altered expectations in the positive direction, although the attention is probably justified:
One year, we spent the entire offseason laughing about Clemson's defense thanks to the Orange Bowl. The next, the Tigers enter the season fresh off one quality win over an SEC team (LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl) with another chance to notch a big win in the same building in Atlanta. They'll open the 2013 season with Georgia, giving them an opportunity on a national stage to show they're capable of winning the ACC for the second time in three years, with an explosive offense led by QB Tajh Boyd and WR Sammy Watkins, and a defense that at least made some strides under highly paid new coordinator Brent Venables. Despite Boyd's 346 yards and two touchdowns against LSU, Clemson doesn't quite seem to be carrying as much bowl-bump momentum as one might think, but the Tigers will surely hover around preseason top 10s as the hype builds for the opening-Saturday night showdown at the Georgia Dome, where we'll quickly find out if the praise is deserved.
The Wildcats are starting to get an offseason push for being Big Ten Legends Division contenders after their two-touchdown Gator Bowl win over Mississippi State to cap a 10-win season with three close losses in which they held leads. Beating Mississippi State isn't all that impressive in itself, given that the Bulldogs were overrated for much of last season thanks to a favorable first-half schedule, but any time Northwestern wins 10 games, you have to take notice and be impressed (it's amazing how much better 10-3 sounds than 9-4). The division-contender talk isn't crazy, as Pat Fitzgerald gets the most out of his talent, the Kain Colter/Trevor Siemian QB combination actually seems to work and Venric Mark is one of the most dangerous tailbacks in the country. But after avoiding them last year, Northwestern plays both Ohio State and Wisconsin in cross-division games, on top of Michigan, Nebraska, Michigan State and a tricky opener at an unpredictable, new-look Cal.
Negative Bowl Bumps
And there's the other side: What happens to the teams who were so underwhelming in the postseason that our entire perspective changes?
Whatever hypothetical post-bowl momentum may exist certainly doesn't reside in South Bend, where the Fighting Irish followed their best regular season in years by getting thoroughly outclassed by Alabama in Miami, and then seeing their star linebacker become the center of one of the most bizarre scandals in sports history. The team that took the field in the BCS championship looked awful, but let's not go overboard; there are still plenty of pieces in place for the Fighting Irish to win double-digit games again, even if the chances of going undefeated are very slim. Sophomore Everett Golson is one of the most talented young quarterbacks in the country and, despite the loss of Manti Te'o, the defense remains loaded, thanks mainly to the duo of Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix on the defensive line. Notre Dame probably should and will start the 2013 season in the top 10.
If last season wasn't embarrassing enough for the AP's preseason No. 1, a 21-7 Sun Bowl loss to Georgia Tech -- the Trojans' fifth loss in six games -- pushed things to another level. With Max Wittek starting in place of the injured Matt Barkley, USC managed 205 total yards and one touchdown against a seven-loss Yellow Jackets team that turned the ball over three times. At this point, the team that lost to Stanford and Arizona and Oregon and UCLA and Notre Dame officially bottomed out. USC still has star power with guys like Marqise Lee, and the defense should improve under new coordinator Clancy Pendergast, but being cautious this season after 2012's excessive hype is probably wise with an unproven collection of talent still dealing with NCAA sanctions depth issues.