Mark Story: Bad schedule, bad timing could cost U of L football dearly

In the history of college football in Kentucky, there might never have been a worse case of timing than what shapes up in 2013 for the Louisville Cardinals.

On paper, the Cardinals are a team that, with the right breaks, could contend for a berth in the BCS Championship Game. Yet Charlie Strong's Cards have a schedule that says "will be one of the softest overall schedules this year."

You want soft? There are 126 FBS teams. Louisville's 11 FBS opponents for 2013 have an average ranking of 76.7 in Athlon's college football preview and 81.3 in the Phil Steele College Football Preview "power poll."

(For perspective, the average rating of Kentucky's opponents is 36.3 in Athlon and 37.2 in Phil Steele.)

Louisville is coming off a season in which it spanked No. 4 Florida in the Sugar Bowl. The Cardinals have a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate in quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. U of L has a bounty of dynamic playmakers to surround its star QB. Louisville has 10 starters back on defense.

So it must be excruciatingly frustrating for a team of such promise to be stuck playing against a schedule that does not appear to provide the Cardinals a legitimate shot to prove how good they are.

"That's why the motto for us this year is 'Worry about us,'" said Louisville defensive end Marcus Smith, "because we can't control the schedule."

After the Sugar Bowl victory, the powers that be at Louisville recognized that this season's lackluster schedule could deny the school a historic opportunity.

According to, U of L tried to schedule a season-opening game with Texas A&M in Houston. If Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas had decided to enter the NFL Draft early, the Hokies were going to pull out of their neutral-site opener against Alabama in Atlanta, and Louisville was scheduled to take Tech's place.

Thomas stayed in school, and U of L was out of luck.

Making the "bad timing factor" even worse, Louisville will join the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2014. Next year, the Cardinals will face a schedule — Florida State, Clemson, Miami (Fla.), Notre Dame — worthy of a national title contender.

However, if Bridgewater, as expected, turns pro after the 2013 season, the Cardinals of 2014 are not apt to be at the level of this season's team.

Some of the current Cards acknowledge looking longingly at U of L's 2014 schedule.

"I do," said senior defensive tackle Brandon Dunn. "I've never played against Notre Dame or Miami."

Said senior defensive tackle Roy Philon: "Sure, you would (want to play next season's schedule). But (Strong) has trained us so much to pay attention to now, we just have to stay in the moment."

In the now, U of L is spending a lame-duck season in the American Athletic Conference, a spin-off of the old Big East. The highest-rated team other than U of L in The American is Cincinnati (No. 35 in Athlon, No. 50 in the Phil Steele Power Poll).

Louisville will finish its season at UC, in what should be a testy challenge. It's also possible that games with Rutgers, Central Florida and at South Florida could be more difficult than many expect.

Still, that's not exactly facing Florida, South Carolina, Alabama and Georgia.

"We've got the schedule we've got," said Philon, the Bryan Station product. "We've got to make the best of it."

Said Bridgewater: "All we can do is go out and play the games. ... It's not like each opponent is going to come out and lay down. We still have to earn it."

Had the old Big East held together, Louisville would have an intriguing road game at Boise State — which was slated to join the league as a football-only member this year — on its 2013 schedule.

Instead, the Big East was torn asunder and Boise State stayed in the Mountain West.

With Louisville's 2013 schedule viewed so negatively, the forming media consensus is that even an undefeated U of L will have little chance to earn a spot in the BCS Championship Game. The Cards' perceived lack of schedule strength could hamper Bridgewater's Heisman hopes, too.

"With our schedule, we'll really have to beat people down if we want to get to the BCS National Championship Game," Marcus Smith said.

Sportswriters like to play "if" games, so try this one: If Louisville's 2013 football team could play against U of L's 2014 schedule, the Cardinals would have a far more viable chance to prove themselves of BCS championship caliber.

In football, like life, timing really is everything.