LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - ESPN "College GameDay" is coming to Louisville. About 20 years ago, that would have been a laughable statement.
To understand the meaning of the powers-that-be determining that UofL is playing the most important game of the week, you have to have some perspective.
You have to remember how big it was when Major Harris and No. 9 West Virginia came to town in 1989. It was big-time football at the time. UofL was fighting for respect.
It helps if you were ever in the stands for a game at Old Cardinal Stadium. The baseball stadium at the Fairgrounds, with the real Astroturf. I was there for many games as a kid, like when Ron Bell, who looked more like a linebacker, kicked the game-winning field goal to beat Virginia 30-28 on my birthday in 1988. That UofL team finished 8-3, but didn't even go to a bowl game.
I was also there for that Thursday night, national TV game against Carl Pickens and Tennessee in 1991, a game that ended the season for promising Cards quarterback Jeff Brohm. He left with a broken leg.
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I was then among the working media in 1997 when No. 1 Penn State came to town. The Nittany Lions brought thousands of fans with them, and the old stadium was packed. Chris Redman connected with Arnold Jackson for the first score. Ron Cooper should have pulled the Lee Corso stunt and called a timeout to take a team picture in front of the scoreboard. Penn State won easily, 57-21. The attendance for that one was 39,826.
The next season, the Cards got their own stadium. In a game that felt like it was played on the face of the sun, Redman and Jackson got the scoring started again, but Tim Couch and Kentucky lit up the scoreboard and ushered in the John L. Smith era with a 68-34 beating. John L. took over a 1-10 team. I'll never forget asking him at media day in 1998 what his goals were for the season. His answer was simple: "To send the seniors out winners." I laughed, thinking, "OK, that's not possible." The Cards' final record that year was 7-5.
John L. established the foundation for the success that UofL football is experiencing now. He made winning a habit, not to downplay the impact of Frank Camp and Howard Schnellenberger, who played major roles in establishing and keeping the program afloat.
Smith's reign just happened to coincide with the opening of the stadium and the tenure of athletic director Tom Jurich. He is a football guy and knew that he could build a legitimate, viable football program at UofL. The UK game also helped. Having that kind of rivalry to kick off the season added to the preseason hype for both programs. It brought an interest to the sport that the state had reserved for basketball.
There were still limitations. Yes, Smith was on the sidelines for what is probably the signature regular season win in school history, a 26-20 win over No. 4 Florida State in 2002. The local guys nailed the forecast. Rain and more rain. It never stopped. Henry Miller burst through the hole, ran into the end zone, and started dancing in the puddles. The footballs were so waterlogged that the school, unable to continue using them, sold them to fans for $200 each.
That was a highlight of Smith's five-year run, which ended with quarterback Dave Ragone running off the field at halftime of the GMAC Bowl, looking me in the eye, and asking me if John L. was going to Michigan State. Jurich had to call a news conference at halftime. You couldn't blame John L. for taking the money and running to a school that had a legitimate road to a national championship.
That changed when UofL got into the Big East. Bobby Petrino took over for his old boss, and the glory days ensued: High-octane offense and plenty of winning. A 31-7 win over perennial power Miami, then ranked 17th, in 2006. Another big game, another injury for a quarterback named Brohm. Jeff's younger brother Brian left that one with a broken thumb.
Later that season, UofL played in a game that probably most resembles what is expected here Saturday, and might have drawn "GameDay" had it been played on a weekend. Two top-five ranked teams went head-to-head at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium. It was a blackout, on a Thursday night. West Virginia had speed, Pat White and Steve Slaton. UofL had Brohm back and won it, 44-34.
For all the success of the Charlie Strong era, his biggest home game may have been a loss. The 38-35 setback to Central Florida on a Friday night in October 2013 cost the Cards a second straight spot in a BCS Bowl. The fact that there weren't many great matchups during his four seasons was mostly due to conference reshuffling. The Big East was getting worse and worse.
Bobby Petrino's second stint kicked off with another big one. A national TV audience watched UofL's first ACC game in school history on Labor Day. The Cards beat Miami, 31-13. Later that season, Jameis Winston and defending national champion Florida State overcame a dominant UofL first half to win 42-31 on a Thursday night.
In 2015, Clemson, the eventual national runner-up, came to town to battle Kyle Bolin and the Cards. The result was a 20-17 Tigers' escape.
Now we're here. Three weeks into the 2016 season. UofL not only has ESPN "College GameDay" in town, but the Cards also have a quarterback who is in the Heisman Trophy conversation. Dave Ragone had the Heisman bobbleheads, but those became collector items when his offensive line collapsed in a season-opening home loss to Kentucky in 2002.
Lamar Jackson was featured this week as ESPN's "Big Man on Campus." He's doing things that no one around here has seen before. He runs like Michael Bush and throws like, well, Michael Bush once did in high school, but also like Chris Redman or Brian Brohm or Teddy Bridgewater. Jackson seems like the once-in-a-generation talent who could make a play Saturday that we're still talking and writing about in 30 years. I knew he was special when then Cards offensive coordinator Garrick McGee's eyes lit up at media day last year. McGee had three quarterbacks on his roster who had won games the year before. One had beaten Miami. One had won at Notre Dame, and the other had led a comeback win over archrival Kentucky. Yet, you could tell that McGee thought his freshman was different.
Jackson, like Bridgewater, threw an interception on his first college pass, but like Bridgewater, he rebounded quickly to become a star. My guess is he may even top last week's hurdle at Syracuse.
There is a lot to like about UofL in this matchup. Florida State has a freshman quarterback. Deondre Francois has never played in a true road game. One of FSU's top defenders, All-American safety Derwin James, is out with a knee injury. Then there's the run. Dalvin Cook's 54-yard touchdown in the third quarter of the Seminoles' 41-21 win over the Cards last October in Tallahassee. It was a run when Cards defenders like Josh Harvey-Clemons and Devonte Fields couldn't wrap up the speedy back. That run played a part in their motivation to return to UofL for their senior seasons. If they can contain Cook and keep Noles defensive end DeMarcus Walker out of their backfield, I like the Cards' chances. As much talk as we've heard this week about "College GameDay," Jimbo Fisher is 7-2 in games with the show in town.
My prediction: UofL 38, Florida State 28.
Bobby Petrino will join me on Sunday morning for a recap on "Inside the Cards." Catch the show at 11:30 a.m. on WAVE 3 News.
Kent Taylor is the sports director at WAVE 3 News.