While stranger things have happened (this week, for example), Saturday evening will likely be Wake’s toughest challenge of the season. To help you prepare for the prime time match-up Saturday night, Mike Rutherford from our SBNation Louisville blog Card Chronicle was kind enough to answer a few of our questions. Check it out below!
BSD: As likely the best team in the ACC and one of best in the country, this season has obviously surpassed all expectations. We all know about Lamar Jackson - what other aspects of the team improved this season to make it so much better?
CC: The attention that the offense has received (specifically Jackson, obviously) has completely overshadowed the fact that this might be the best defense Louisville has ever had. U of L is the only team in the country that ranks in the top 10 of the FBS in both total offense and total defense. Todd Grantham's defense is No. 7 in the country in total defense and is the fourth-best unit in the FBS against the run.
The biggest boost for the Cards was that for the first time in the second Bobby Petrino era, the defense returned the bulk of its starters. Four juniors -- Devonte Fields, Keith Kelsey, DeAngelo Brown and Josh Harvey-Clemons -- all had the opportunity to leave early for the draft, and all four chose to return for one more season. Those decisions made losing first round pick Sheldon Rankins a much softer blow than it would have been otherwise. With the exception of the Clemson game, the defense has been terrific.
BSD: What do you think it'll take for the Cards to make it to the CFP?
CC: That certainly has been the main topic of conversation here and will continue to be unless Louisville loses.
I think the path is relatively straightforward for Louisville: you need to win out, you need Ohio State to lose (against Michigan is probably the only shot), and you need Washington to lose at least once (preferably against Washington State so that the Huskies don't get to play in the Pac-12 title game and are in the same situation as the Cardinals).
As far as the "style points" argument, that's only going to come into play if Louisville finds itself in a beauty pageant for the fourth spot with a 1-loss Michigan (a pageant it probably loses) or a 1-loss Washington (a pageant it might lose if the Huskies are Pac-12 champions).
All Louisville can do is control itself, but any Cardinal fan who says he isn't also paying attention to what's going on with the five teams ranked ahead of the U of L -- especially Ohio State and Washington -- is lying. It's less than a 50 percent chance, but there's still definitely a path out there.
BSD: Duke and UVA were able to make it interesting as heavy underdogs - was there a common theme in those two games that made them close?
CC: The common theme was that both teams were able to keep the Louisville offense from getting the Cardinals out to an early lead, and they were able to convert on 3rd downs to keep their offense on the field and Louisville's offense off it.
Boston College tried to do the same thing last week, but it didn't work because Louisville was able to score on three of its first four drives and the Eagles weren't able to put together any long, clock-milking drives. Because of that, BC got down 21-0 early and had to abandon its game plan and try and play Louisville straight up. It didn't go well and things got out of hand.
To beat Louisville if you're a team like Wake Forest, you have to dominate time of possession, you have to get some turnovers, and you have to benefit from the Louisville offense being uncharacteristically out of sync.
BSD: Give us a player to watch on defense that could make for a tough outing for John Wolford
CC: I'll go with cornerback Jaire Alexander, who I think pretty clearly has been Louisville's defensive MVP this season. The sophomore only returned punts last year, but he's thrived as a full-time starter this season, intercepting five passes and forcing opposing QBs to throw to the opposite side of the field all season. If Wolford takes a shot at Alexander and he isn't sharp, No. 10 will make him pay.
BSD: As this is the 10 year anniversary of the Cards-Deacs Orange Bowl, what memory sticks with you most from that event?
CC: Oh, man. A lot of things.
The first thing I thought of when I read that question was the image of Muhammad Ali and Arnold Palmer together at midfield before the game for the coin toss. Two legends of American sports who wound up moving on from this world at about the same time.
With all due respect to the 1991 Fiesta Bowl win over Alabama, that game was Louisville's introduction to the national spotlight, and we all thought it was the start of an even greater era to come. Bobby Petrino's departure and Steve Kragthorpe's hiring changed all that, but the program is back now a decade later.
That's the other thing that stands out: 10 years ago, Louisville was oh so close to playing for a national title, and yet we were still all over the moon that the team was going to the Orange Bowl to take on the ACC champions. Fast forward a decade and U of L is in a very similar situation, but it seems like the fan base is going to be massively disappointed if the Cards miss out on the playoff and wind up back in the Orange Bowl.
I suppose the Sugar Bowl win over Florida and the desire to take the next step are to blame. Having the likely Heisman Trophy winner and truly believing that you're one of the four best teams in the country are probably factors as well.
BSD: Since the Cards need style points and they will have a national night game audience, do you think UL will cover the 35 point spread?
CC: I'm going to say no. Thirty-five is an awfully large number when you're talking about a team that hasn't allowed that many points in a game yet this season. Plus, it's the exact same situation Louisville walked into when they played Virginia and Duke, and that didn't go swimmingly.
I also think the style points deal is a little overrated. Lamar Jackson didn't play at all in the 4th quarter last weekend. If Petrino had wanted to hang 70 on Boston College, he could have done it. Louisville needs to look good in its last three games, but that's a very general term. Their situation being what it is (needing teams ahead of them to lose), I'm not sure there's much difference when you're talking about them winning a game, say, 31-13 than winning 55-3.
Thanks again to Mike for taking the time to chat with us. Here’s to an injury-free contest in Louisville tomorrow night!