LOUISVILLE — There is no greater illustration of the expectations surrounding the state's two biggest college football programs than the fact that Louisville fans promptly purchased on Wednesday the 2,000-plus tickets that Kentucky returned for the Sept. 2 game.
"That just shows what great fan support we have," U of L Coach Charlie Strong said at his team's media day at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium.
Actually, it's a mood meter. Coming off a losing season, Kentucky is picked to finish seventh in the seven-team SEC East. Coming off a bowl season, Louisville is picked to win the eight-team Big East.
"That we could go from being picked last my first year to picked seventh last year to being picked to win the league this year, I don't quite understand that," said Strong, before adding. "We can't hide from it."
Why the perception of Louisville football has risen so far so fast has much to do with (a) a strong finish of five wins in the team's last six regular-season games a year ago, (b) its sophomore quarterback and (c) the hopes for an improving defense.
Teddy Bridgewater is the quarterback. The former University of Miami commitment is 40 pounds heavier than when he first stepped on the U of L campus as a skinny kid from Florida.
"He's more durable now," said Strong.
Bridgewater is also smarter, thanks to the experience gained by being the team's starter the second half of last season. Not that he has the big head, mind you.
"The beautiful thing about Teddy is that he never thinks he's too good," said offensive coordinator Shawn Watson on Wednesday. "He's Teddy every day."
Bridgewater has weapons in a nice stable of backs and some gifted wide receivers. What he needs is protection from an offensive line led by senior center Mario Benavides, who is the opposite of Bridgewater. The oft-injured Benavides has dropped 20 pounds.
"Mario is the thump in our voice," said Watson. "He's our leader."
Defensive coordinator Vance Bedford is looking for a leader to replace departed linebacker Dexter Heyman.
"He was our big brother and that's the thing we're missing right now," Bedford said.
Senior cornerback Adrian Boushell could fill the leadership role, though as a transfer from Florida he has been in the system only one year.
"I've told him we need him to be the guy," said Bedford. "If (his backup) is in the doghouse you better bite him and not let him come out of the doghouse. That's the kind of guy we want him to be."
What Louisville fans think their team can be is a Top 25 finisher with a chance at a BCS Bowl — the Big East has two years left as a member of the current BCS contract — and, oh yeah, a team that can handle the cross-state and visiting rival in the season's first game.
"We need to play better at home," Strong said. "Last year, we beat West Virginia (on the road) and then lose to Pittsburgh (at home), we beat Kentucky (on the road) and lose to Marshall (at home). We can't let that happen. We've got to be more of a consistent winner than that."
Louisville fans want the same thing, but expectations aren't enough. Strong said he likes his team because of its reality-based character.
"I don't want a guy who thinks he's somebody that he's really not," said the coach.
"We just look at where the program was three years ago and where it is since Coach Strong took over," Bridgewater said. "He always reminds us that then no one would have ever predicted for this team to win the conference. So we just think about what they said two years ago."
Not the tickets the fans are buying today.
John Clay: 859-231-3226. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv