It is not true that all college football writers and broadcasters are required to emphasize the words "The Schedule" in every sentence spoken about Louisville football. It just seems that way.
Louisville will host UCF on ESPN on Friday night, the second of (at most) four Cardinals games that anyone outside the state of Kentucky actually will watch, mostly because it's the second of four weeknight games in favorable time slots. As we saw during last Thursday's win over Rutgers, any prominent telecast of the Cardinals will feature endless debate about the merits of Louisville's schedule and whether or not a spot in the BCS National Championship is a viable goal, should the team finish the season undefeated. Short answer: No. Long answer: No, unless every other team finishes with at least two losses.
The Cardinals have beaten Ohio, Eastern Kentucky, Kentucky, Florida International, Temple and Rutgers -- teams with a combined record of 13-23 -- by a combined score of 246 to 44. Their remaining opponents, all in the American Athletic Conference -- UCF, South Florida, Connecticut, Houston, Memphis and Cincinnati -- have a combined record of 16-16, so while the schedule appears to get slightly better, it's not by much. Somehow, a schedule that everyone knew would be awful has turned out even worse, because of the unthinkable futility of UConn, Temple, FIU and (for the most part) USF.
That leaves Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater in an awkward position. Instead of being touted as a frontrunner for the Heisman and a national title contender, he's viewed only through the prism of the NFL draft, meaning that every one of his passes acts as a meticulous referendum on his draft stock. Louisville as a whole, however, may prove to be the most irrelevant good team ever.
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We all want to see a quarterback's arm strength, to follow the ball, but if you want to know how good Bridgewater is, watch his feet. Bridgewater's base is better than any other quarterback in college football, better in fact than many of the NFL starters he could end up replacing. He's mobile as a runner, yes, but more importantly, he's mobile in the pocket, able to keep his balance and keep his feet set without losing his field vision. He does it effortlessly, allowing him to deliver strong, accurate throws, even with defenders crashing around him.
Bad NFL quarterbacks get happy feet in the pocket, losing their composure when pressure comes and thus letting their mechanics lapse. Bridgewater does not, so he's able to render blitzes ineffective and make throws few others can match. He can't be adequately defended, because it's nearly impossible to dictate the game against him; he usually dictates the flow of the game to the defense.
Bridgewater ranks 11th in the nation in yards per game, third in passer rating, third in touchdown passes, fourth in yards per attempt, seventh in completion percentage and fourth in third-down passer rating. He does everything well, as any basic statistic shows, and while the schedule matters, it does not take away from what Bridgewater is able to accomplish. Watch his feet, watch his arm, watch his decisions, and it's apparent that Bridgewater can do this against almost anyone.
Last year, in the Sugar Bowl win over Florida, he completed 20 of 32 passes for 266 yards, two touchdowns and an interception -- not brilliant numbers, but better than any other quarterback performed all last season against Florida's highly regarded defense.
His performance against Rutgers last week was not perfect, including a few overthrows and a fumble, but he completed 21 of 31 passes for 310 yards (67.7 percent completion rate, 10.0 yards per attempt), with two touchdowns and an interception in the 24-10 win. If that's a down day, then it's only more apparent just how good Bridgewater really is.
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This is what makes everything about Louisville so unfair this season. Much like NCAA penalties that punish current players instead of the actual wrongdoers from past seasons, current Louisville players are the victims of the bad decision-making and politics that go along with future scheduling and conference realignment. If only ACC realignment had occurred one year earlier, if only Louisville joined the ACC Atlantic this season instead of next, then this Saturday's Clemson-Florida State showdown wouldn't be the only massive, title-impacting game on the league's schedule. We'd get Teddy Bridgewater and Louisville vs. Jameis Winston and Florida State, and we'd get Bridgewater and Louisville vs. Tajh Boyd and Clemson. If only the Big 12 had invited Louisville, then the Cardinals might be going undefeated in a wide-open conference, with Bridgewater on his way to the Heisman.
Alas, the Cardinals are stuck in Conference USA 2.0, beating up on programs they've long since surpassed in resources, talent and coaching. They're a fish out of water, at the exact wrong time.
It's hard to tell how good Louisville actually is, because of how irrelevant its games have been -- running clock debates, and all -- but it's becoming increasingly clear that it's worthy of its perception as a top-10 team, at minimum, even if it doesn't boast a top-10 résumé. Not only does Louisville have Bridgewater and a solid supporting cast, led by wideout DeVante Parker, but, amazingly, its defense ranks first nationally in Bill Connelly's S&P+ ratings at Football Outsiders, an advanced metric that adjusts for schedule.
The Cardinals are supposed to win every week, and they're supposed to do it in dominant fashion. Despite minor hiccups, that's what they've done. They may lose to a legitimately good UCF on Friday, or they may somehow lose to someone else, but all of it likely will be moot anyway. If the Cardinals go undefeated, they'll end up in a BCS bowl game, just not the national title game -- as it should be. If they do lose a game, they'll probably end up in the same place; either way, it's a slightly flawed but really good team overall, with a transcendent talent at quarterback and a defense playing better than expected.
Context is important, but it shouldn't diminish the enjoyment of watching Bridgewater play for a good team for seven more games. If nothing else, it's still more fun than a presumed rookie year with the Jaguars likely will be next year. Lousy opponents or not, he's still the best pure passer in college football.
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