Although a BCS bowl is now out of reach, the stakes are still high for Louisville's football team in Thursday night's regular season finale against No. 23 Cincinnati (9-2, 6-1 AAC) in Nippert Stadium (7:30, ESPN).
Foremost, there's the specter of a possible third straight tie for a conference championship -- this one the American Athletic Conference. If the No. 19/16 Cardinals (10-1, 6-1) beat the Bearcats they could tie for the league title with an SMU (5-6, 4-3) upset of Central Florida (10-1, 7-0) Saturday in Dallas.
Also hanging in the balance is where the Cards will spend part of their Christmas holidays -- either in balmy Orlando or frigid Charlotte, N.C. Orlando is host to the Russell Athletic Bowl in the Florida Citrus Bowl on Dec. 28, while the Belk is played in Charlotte's Bank of America Stadium the same day.
Predictions are that the AAC's second-place team will receive an invitation to the Russell Athletic Bowl against an ACC team, while the next team in line -- in this case the UofL-UC loser -- will head to Charlotte, also vs. an ACC club.
There's likely to be a significant temperature difference between the two cities. So which bowl would the Louisville players prefer? Well, it depends on who you ask -- and probably who is being honest about their answer.
"I don't think it matters to them," UofL coach Charlie Strong says. I just think they want to go to a bowl."
Louisville defensive end Marcus Smith said he'd prefer to go to the Russell Athletic Bowl because he has already been to the Belk Bowl in 2011.
"We want to get this win (over UC) so we can go to the Russell Athletic Bowl," Smith concluded.
UofL lost to North Carolina State 31-24 in the 2011 Belk Bowl. The Cards have never played in the Russell Athletic Bowl.
When asked his preference, center Jake Smith was more diplomatic than Smith, although he initially seemed to also indicate a preference for Orlando.
"It's gonna be pretty cold in North Carolina," Smith said. Then, after hesitating, he added: "Obviously, the Belk is a great bowl. Whatever bowl we play in is a blessing because my first and second years here we didn't know if we were going to a bowl at all. Any bowl we go to, we're gonna be pleased."
The weather may not be as good in Charlotte, but Smith was pretty impressed with one of the gifts to players -- complimentary shopping in a Belk Department store.
"Last time we went we got a $450 shopping spree, which was pretty cool," he said. "That's always a good deal; you can go Christmas shopping for your family and friends. $450 to me, I'm in hog heaven. Anytime you get that kind of money in your hands, you don't really know what to do with it."
No word on what the gifts are in the Russell Athletic Bowl.