South Florida's Orange Bowl provides the setting for tonight's nationally televised tilt between the third-ranked Miami Hurricanes and No. 18 Louisville. And if the history of college football is any guide, that's as close to a major bowl as the Louisville Cardinals are likely to get this season.
It's not that Louisville has a glaring weakness. On the contrary, the Cardinals are 4-0, boast the nation's third-ranked scoring defense (surrendering just seven points per game) and thrashed their last opponent, East Carolina, 59-7. The more telling statistic is that Louisville belongs to Conference USA, generally undistinguished in football and essentially irrelevant when it comes to the Bowl Championship Series.
That changes next season when Louisville joins the Big East -- one of the six conferences that dictate the rules and divvy up the spoils of the Fiesta, Orange, Rose and Sugar Bowls. But this season, Louisville remains on the fringes of college football, trying to do what no school from the mid-majors has done since the BCS was created in 1998: Compete in one of the four premier bowl games.
With a victory over Miami, Louisville would become the favorite to make history, separating itself from Utah, Boise State and Navy, the sole remaining contenders with still-perfect records. A loss, by however narrow a margin, would scuttle that dream.
That's hardly the case for Miami, which simply needs to win the Atlantic Coast Conference to guarantee a spot in a major bowl. For Louisville, the only route is perfection. Even then, a trip to a major bowl isn't assured: Tulane finished 12-0 in 1998 and Marshall went 13-0 in 1999, and neither played in a major bowl.
"It's a critical game for both teams," says Britton Banowsky, commissioner of Conference USA, of tonight's game. "For Louisville it's particularly important because just winning our conference and being the conference champion doesn't assure them an opportunity to play in a Bowl Championship Series game. So for them, they're going to have to continue to win in order to keep those hopes alive."
Win or lose, Louisville likely will play in its seventh consecutive bowl game this season. But there's a world of difference in the $750,000 payout of the GMAC Bowl (in which Louisville competed last season) and the $11 million to $14 million payout of the Orange, Fiesta, Sugar or Rose.
Louisville Athletic Director Tom Jurich has devoted his tenure to getting the Cardinals on the enviable side of that world.
In recent years he has pumped new energy into a once-proud basketball program by hiring superstar coach Rick Pitino. He poured more money into women's sports to rectify spending practices that ran afoul of Title IX. He hired four compliance officers to ensure coaches and players followed NCAA rules. He upgraded the football program, hiring John L. Smith (later lured away by Michigan State) and Bobby Petrino, whose record is 13-4. And he oversaw the opening of a sparkling new football stadium with 44,000 seats, 30 skyboxes and a naming-rights deal -- Papa John's Cardinal Stadium.
Jurich's efforts were rewarded last November, when the Big East welcomed Louisville to help fill the void left by departing members Miami, Virginia Tech and, eventually, Boston College.
As a BCS-member-in-waiting, Louisville has a unique vantage point on the politics of postseason football, straddling the line, as it does this season, between being an invited guest at the BCS banquet table and a would-be grate-crasher from the mid-majors.
Under the BCS rules, six of the eight berths in the Orange, Fiesta, Sugar and Rose bowls are set aside for the major-conference champions. The other two are wild cards, awarded according to season-ending rankings. The only way a team from a "non-BCS" conference can guarantee itself a wild card is to finish among the top six in the rankings, which none has managed.
Those requirements will be loosened beginning with the 2005-06 season under a compromise brokered last spring, but it's not clear how that will work or whether a fifth bowl will be elevated to BCS status, offering a multi-million dollar payout to two more teams.
Few are as aware of the disadvantages of being dubbed a "mid-major" or a "non-BCS school" as Jurich. And his disdain for the labels is palpable. "The 'non-BCS' label is probably the most dangerous label there is," Jurich says. "It doesn't make any sense to me."
In Louisville's case, he argues, it simply doesn't apply. The Cardinals' athletic budget is roughly $33 million, of which about $9 million is spent on football. There's nothing "mid-major" about that kind of money, he says. And it's more than many of the lesser football-powers from BCS conferences spend on their teams, yet they reap a financial windfall simply by belonging to conferences that share the wealth when one of its members goes to a major bowl. Jurich calls them "bottom feeders."
Moreover, those labels perpetuate an image that's a powerful recruiting tool when it comes to swaying a 17- or 18-year-old mind. Schools that belong to BCS conferences promise a chance to play for a national title; schools outside the BCS have a tougher sell. "That goes a long way with a kid," Jurich says.
In the meantime, Louisville is selling recruits on its ambition. In that light, Jurich sees tonight's game as having no downside, win or lose.
As ESPN's Thursday night game, it's not only nationally televised but also the only football game on tap. It's being played in Florida, a fertile recruiting base. And it's against a highly ranked opponent with a storied tradition.
Says Petrino: "Next season we'll be in a different position than the one we're in now. When we move into the Big East, we'll have a chance to play in a BCS bowl game. In a world where the words 'BCS' mean a lot, it will help us when we go out recruiting, and we can tell student-athletes that we have the opportunity to compete in a BCS bowl game."