ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Louisville Coach Charlie Strong told his players in January there was no reason the struggling program couldn't reach a bowl game in his first season at the helm.
The Cardinals didn't quite believe him then. They do now.
Louisville (6-6) will take on former Conference USA rival Southern Miss (8-4) in the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl on Dec. 21, the school's first bowl appearance since winning the Orange Bowl following the 2006 season.
It's been a long four years since that giddy night in Miami when the Cardinals seemed to solidify themselves as a Big East power with a win over Wake Forest. The program slumped in three seasons under Steve Krag thorpe, leading to Strong's hire last December.
His message from the get-go was simple: There was no reason the Cardinals had to wait to become competitive in the Big East.
"He told us from the beginning that this was not going to be a rebuilding year, it's going to start now," said wide receiver Doug Beaumont.
Louisville, picked to finish last in the Big East in the pre-season, went a respectable 3-4 in the league and became bowl eligible with a 40-13 rout of Rutgers in the season finale.
"The coaches believed we could do it even if we didn't think we could," said senior quarterback Justin Burke. "I don't know how (Strong) grew it, but he did."
The Cardinals and the Golden Eagles are hardly strangers. They took turns dominating Conference USA during Louisville's stint in the league, combining to win seven titles between 1996-2004.
Southern Miss leads the all-time series 18-9-1. Louisville won the last meeting between the schools, a 25-23 victory at home last year.
It hasn't been the easiest season for the Golden Eagles. Southern Miss was celebrating a win over Central Florida last month when three players — Martez Smith, Tim Green and Deddrick Jones — were shot during a fight outside a Hattiesburg, Miss., nightclub.
The shooting left Smith paralyzed from the waist down but all three are expected to join the team for the bowl game. Making the postseason has become a habit for the Golden Eagles. The game will be the ninth consecutive bowl appearance for the program and 13th in the past 14 years.
Southern Miss last appeared in a bowl game in Florida in 1981, when it played Missouri in the Tangerine Bowl in Orlando.
"I think we're making progress," said Coach Larry Fedora. "We're heading where we want to be going. But it's a slow process. It's slower than I want it to be. I'm not a slow guy. I like to move pretty fast."
The game will reunite Fedora and Strong. The two coached at Florida together in 2003 and 2004. Fedora also coached with Louisville defensive coordinator Vance Bedford at Oklahoma State in 2007.
"Charlie has done a tremendous job with those guys this year getting them into a bowl game and I am sure they are going to be excited about playing down there," Fedora said.