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November 3, 2006
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Let the debate begin.
Does an undefeated Big East champion deserve to play for the national title?
"Of course," Louisville linebacker Malik Jackson said Thursday night after the fifth-ranked Cardinals' 44-34 victory over No. 3 West Virginia.
Easy for him to say.
Now he must spend the next month helping the Cardinals convert the remaining skeptics who will determine which two teams square off Jan. 8 in Glendale, Ariz.
Louisville definitely can make a compelling case that it belongs.
Quarterback Brian Brohm continues to prove why he's one of the game's top pro prospects. The guy who has come back from knee and thumb injuries in the last 12 months showed his resilience Thursday, passing for 354 yards.
The Cardinals also deserve plenty of credit for everything they've overcome this season.
They weren't supposed to survive the loss of star tailback Michael Bush, who broke his right leg in the season opener. They weren't expected to have an answer for West Virginia's dynamic duo of Pat White and Steve Slaton.
Yet even after all the injuries and adversity, Louisville remains unbeaten.
"We had so many doubters before this game," Louisville center Eric Wood said. "I think this win will make people finally start to respect the University of Louisville for who we are and where we've come."
But it won't convert all the skeptics.
Shouldn't a championship team be able to score a touchdown when it has five shots from inside the 5-yard line against a mediocre defense? The Cardinals couldn't do it late in the first half and instead settled for a field goal.
Better yet, does a championship defense allow 318 rushing yards and 540 total yards to anyone?
Granted, West Virginia's dominant rushing attack has made plenty of defenses look silly. It's still tough to imagine the Mountaineers consistently running circles around Florida or Texas, two of the one-loss teams that still own national championship aspirations.
These questions might not seem fair after such a convincing victory, but Louisville should get used to life under the microscope. That's what happens when an upstart program finds itself on the verge of playing for a national title.
If the Cardinals don't like the criticism, they should talk to Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese. He's certainly heard enough of it since his league lost Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
He has spent the last two years hearing complaints that the Big East isn't worthy of a Bowl Championship Series invitation. Now that the league has bounced back, the question is whether an undefeated Big East team merits inclusion in the national title game over a once-beaten Southeastern Conference, Big 12 or Pac-10 champion.
"That is six weeks away," Tranghese said before the Louisville-West Virginia game. "We can't even worry about it. I don't even know if one of our teams can get through (undefeated), to be honest with you. I think West Virginia, Louisville and Rutgers are all going to have to go on the road and beat somebody.
"That's the strength of the league. You've got to go to Pitt, and you've got to go to Rutgers or you've got to go to West Virginia or you've got to come here and you've got to win. If somebody can get through all that and they are 12-0, then we'll worry about it at that point."
Tranghese has a good point. It's easy to imagine a scenario in which the Big East ends the season without any undefeated teams.
What if Louisville falls next Thursday night at Rutgers? What if Rutgers loses at West Virginia in its regular-season finale? That combination of results would end the argument and leave the Big East out of the national title picture.
"We just need to worry about Rutgers," Louisville coach Bobby Petrino said. "We need to get prepared, play well and everything else will play out."
As much as Petrino preached the one-game-at-a-time approach, his players couldn't avoid discussing what might lie ahead in the not-too-distant future. They believe the difficulty of their late-season schedule illustrates why an undefeated Big East champion deserves to play for the national title.
"I don't think there should be a question," Wood said. "If there's two undefeated teams left and the Big East has one of them, they should go to the national title game."
Louisville doesn't merely believe it belongs in the national title game if it remains undefeated. The Cardinals think they can beat whoever they might face that January evening in Arizona.
Jackson revealed as much when a reporter asked him if the Cardinals could win a game at Michigan, Ohio State or Southern Cal.
"Yes," Jackson replied. "Of course it would be a tough battle, but that's our mentality."
If Jackson left Louisville's city limits, he might have trouble finding many people who would agree with him.
Without Bush in the lineup, Louisville probably couldn't establish much of a rushing attack against Michigan's outstanding run defense. As good as Douglas and Urrutia are, they'd struggle to get open against Thorpe Award candidate Leon Hall.
And after watching White gain 347 total yards Thursday night, it's easy to envision Ohio State quarterback and Heisman Trophy favorite Troy Smith having a big game against this defense.
I have a hard time believing Louisville could beat Michigan or Ohio State. I'd pick either Big Ten team to win that matchup by at least a touchdown.
But if the Cardinals finish the regular season unbeaten, they have certainly earned the opportunity to prove me wrong.
For more coverage of the Louisville Cardinals, check out CardinalSports.com.com.