Louisville opens its first season in the ACC tonight, but there is nothing unfamiliar about the setting or the opponent.
The Cards beat Miami the last time they played, nine months ago in the Russell Athletic Bowl in December. "Beat" might not be a strong enough word to describe what happened in Orlando, Florida. Louisville embarrassed Miami, a school in a bigger conference with more football tradition and much more at stake, too.
Nobody on either side has quite forgotten the 36-9 final. Louisville linebacker Lorenzo Mauldin still has a “U” logo hanging in his room with a big red X through it. Miami players, meanwhile, talk about getting revenge, about feeling “disrespected” in the bowl game. Animosity between the two already is jacked up, and they haven't even played a league game yet.
“Our practices have been more electric,” Mauldin said. “Everybody just wants to beat Miami.”
It's easy to see why the ACC selected this as its prime-time Labor Day showdown. The subplots are so juicy, it's hard to pick the juiciest one. Is it the bitterness between the sides, exacerbated by all the Florida players on the Louisville roster who want to show Miami what it’s missing? Is it the Miami disrespect card, exacerbated when former quarterback Teddy Bridgewater did the throat-slash gesture late in the bowl game last year?
Is it Bobby Petrino making his return to the Louisville sideline? Is it Miami starting true freshman quarterback Brad Kaaya? Is it Miami running back Duke Johnson finally returning to the field after missing the end of last season with a broken ankle? Is it Louisville’s official ACC debut?
The matchups might be completely different, the Louisville coaching staff and schemes might be totally different, but that does not change just how much both teams look back on what happened in December.
Louisville wants a repeat. Miami wants revenge.
“The guys just want to come back and do it again,” Mauldin said. “It was a great feeling, and they just want to feel like that again. The preparation leading up to it has been good. I feel like we’re going to have a lot of fun on Monday night.”
Miami coach Al Golden tried to downplay his team’s emotions, saying: “Louisville played really well. They had an exceptional team. They had a team that -- they only lost a couple times in two years, so that was a great team, played really well. But no, in terms of our program and their program, this is a different team for both, and clearly we have to take care of our business, not worry about anybody else's.”
Petrino, who was not even on the sidelines for the Louisville win last season, had a different view. He said his players do have extra motivation going into this game, a rare rematch that pits the same teams in a bowl and season opener.
“I think that's human,” Petrino said. “Got a lot of guys from that same area that played against a lot of players on their team in high school, have known each other for a long time. It's going to be real important for us to focus on the process, focus on our performance one play at a time.”
It sounds like a cliché, but Mauldin said the team has worked on trying not to get too emotional leading up to kickoff because “when you get too riled up, you can forget what you learn, and you don’t want to get complacent.”
The Louisville defense will have a far different assignment in this game. Priority No. 1 is stopping Johnson, who has the ability to change the game with one play. Then, the Cards can focus on rattling Kaaya, a wild card in the matchup. Louisville has no tape to study on him, so it has just been focusing on the offensive scheme. The defense will have to adjust on the fly to what Kaaya brings to the table.
Miami also faces unknowns on the Louisville offense. Will Gardner replaces Bridgewater, and leading receiver DeVante Parker is out. Petrino runs a vastly different scheme than former coach Charlie Strong did in the bowl game. Coaching adjustments are always important, maybe more so in openers, when there are so many unknowns.
Still, there is enough from both sides to go on. Most especially, all that emotion.