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Louisville faces the new test of higher expectations

Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire

Coming into the 2016 season, Louisville was considered the “dark horse” of the ACC, but there’s nothing “dark” about beating the No. 2 team in the country by 43 points. That was the third-largest margin of victory against a top-two team in the AP Poll, which has existed since the mid-1930s.

It’s safe to say the Cardinals will come into the “light” in terms of national respectability. In the latest AP Poll released Sunday night, Louisville climbed seven spots to No. 3. Fans don’t have to go out on a limb to say, with the only exception being Clemson, that Louisville will be favored in every game until it loses or reaches the College Football Playoff.

What happens when the hunter becomes the hunted?

No longer will analysts question whether Louisville has the talent to compete with the top teams in the country. The new concerns are how the Cards deal with the success and pressures that come with being the new favorite to win the ACC.

The Cardinals have risen as high as No. 3 just one other time in the history of their football program, in the first week of November in 2006, which was during coach Bobby Petrino’s first stint with the team. At No. 5, Louisville knocked off No. 3 West Virginia by 10 points to move to 8-0 and 4-0 in the old Big East.

The following week, Louisville visited No. 15 Rutgers and fell in a close one, 28-25.

Petrino’s squad still had a great season despite the loss. Louisville set a new program record with 12 victories and defeated Wake Forest in the Orange Bowl. However, had it beaten Rutgers and stayed undefeated, Louisville could have played for its first national title.

Louisville doesn’t face a top-25 team the week after Saturday’s dominant performance versus Florida State, but the Cardinals do have a tricky trap game at Marshall. The Thundering Herd are 1-1, but they went 10-3 and won the St. Petersburg Bowl last season.

The following week, Louisville will visit No. 5 Clemson, which could very well decide who represents the Atlantic Division in the ACC Championship Game. It would only be human nature to already look ahead to that matchup on Oct. 1.

If the Cardinals overlook the Thundering Herd and lose this Saturday, even though it would have no affect on their ACC standings, it would be an extremely damaging loss for their resume and the conference.

Assuming Louisville gets past Marshall and Clemson, the rest of the schedule is much easier, but it’s still filled with quality ACC opponents that would love to knock the Cardinals off their perch. Having the target on your back is a lot different from being the underdog — just ask Deshaun Watson and the Clemson Tigers, who have labored through the first few weeks of their season, now that everyone knows how formidable Dabo Swinney’s team can be.

Louisville plays with such anger and intensity, which was extremely noticeable even in the second half against Florida State. The game was already over, yet the Cardinals didn’t let up and completed destroyed the Seminoles. Keeping that same intensity while hearing about how good you are in the media is a hard thing to do.

The Cardinals will also have to deal with the Heisman hype that will surround quarterback Lamar Jackson as long as he continues his ridiculous run. He has accumulated 1,377 yards of offense and 18 touchdowns in just three games. He has also thrown just two interceptions and completed 61 percent of his passes.

Jackson is reportedly a very hard worker in practice. He will have to continue to work hard to get better in order to stay ahead of defenses, which will most certainly game-plan specifically for him. If success goes to his head, Louisville’s season could derail very quickly.

The Cardinals have answered our first round of questions and proved they are for real. Next, they will have to meet new and higher expectations, dealing with media hype and internal pressure in order to be champions.

Louisville faces the new test of higher expectations

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