Time was, no so long ago really, when University of Louisville football players would watch top-15 powerhouse on TV during their spare time and wish they could be like them.
Now they ARE them -- at least in their opinion. Trouble is, with a schedule unanimously derided as one of the weakest in the FBS, the No. 7 Cardinals (4-0) won't get a chance to prove it during the regular season.
With UofL enjoying a bye last weekend -- one of three during the season -- senior defensive tackle Brandon Dunn and junior offensive tackle Jamon Brown watched a couple of the televised games featuring ranked teams. Dunn kept an eye on then-No. 9/10 Georgia as it outgunned No. 6 LSU 44-41 and Brown saw a portion of No. 12/13 South Carolina's 28-25 win over unranked American Athletic Conference compatriot UCF.
Both came away more convinced than ever that Louisville is in those SEC teams' league.
"That was a great game," Dunn said of LSU-Georgia. "It was a shootout. I wasn't expecting that; I thought LSU and Georgia would have some good defenses, so there are a lot of corrections to be made on both sides, obviously. If we ever get a chance to play those high-caliber teams we understand we can match up with them. You've got to respect the SEC, but with what we did in the Sugar Bowl, we have great confidence that we can play with those teams."
Coach Charlie Strong thinks so, too, and acknowledged that he also checked out some of the televised games.
"You sit there and compare our team to their team," Strong said. "I think we have a good football team. I think if we play well on that day, we have a chance to slug it out with those guys."
Asked if the Cards have a gauge as to how good they are, not having played a ranked team, Brown said: "I think we have a gauge on how good we CAN be. We've had some pretty good games, but we haven't done everything perfect, which is something we strive for as an offense. We push for perfection. We do have a pretty solid team, but we can get a lot better."
But the Cards aren't going to get a chance to showcase their worth and silence skeptics anytime soon. The AAC is even worse than some had predicted. Four of Louisville's last eight opponents are still winless against FBS teams, beginning with Temple (0-4) at noon Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.
It appears that the closest things UofL has to at least a modest test are the back-to-back meetings with Rutgers (3-1) and UCF (3-1) in Papa John's Cardinal Stadium Oct. 10 and Ot. 18, the latter a prime-time Friday night game on ESPN. Houston (Nov. 16 at PJCS) is 4-0, but also has faced a weak schedule, and Cincinnati (Dec. 5 in Cincy) is 3-1, but has lost its starting quarterback, was mauled by Illinois 45-17 and managed a mere 14 points against Miami of Ohio, which is surrendering nearly 40 points per game.
So the Cards are in a position to root for teams they otherwise would be pulling to lose in order to upgrade their strength of schedule. For instance, Dunn said he was hopeful that arch-rival Kentucy would upset Florida.
"I wanted to see (UK) battle with them, compete, because that would make us look good," Dunn said. "If they upset one of those teams, it would make people say, 'Okay UK is a good football team and Louisville is even greater' because we beat them."
Of course, there is nothing UofL can do about its schedule and Strong admits he is weary of hearing the criticism. He's trying to keep the focus on his own team's performance and improvement.
"People look at where we are and they look at the team we have," Strong says. "They say, 'OK, you guys have a good football team, but you're not playing anybody.' I tell the team all the time that it's all about how we play. We can't worry about what anybody else says.
"What we're always talking to the players about is just going out and being the best you can be and going to compete at a high level. The standard has been raised here, so let's make sure we don't play down to the level of our competition. If we think we're better, let's go out there and show everyone that we're better."