A year ago, Syracuse played Louisville in what was comically-noted as the "Big East Game of the Week" and televised for millions to watch. What transpired was one of the most mind-numbing three hours of college football that anyone has ever witnessed. The game was so bad that the "Play of the Game" was a 95-yard punt return for a touchdown ... that was nullified by penalties.
Louisville won 10-9, ending a two-game losing streak to the Orange. That still didn't prevent them or Syracuse from finishing in the bottom of the Big East for the second straight year.
Gone from last season is Louisville coach Steve Kragthorpe and the stench he left on that program. Gone from Syracuse is the hangover from the Greg Robinson Era that still affected so many facets of their game. Now, it's a whole new ballgame for two whole new teams.
The Orange are 6-2 (3-1) and on the verge of their first bowl bid since 2004. Their defense is putting up stats among the best in the nation and they have a legitimate shot to not only qualify for a bowl game, but play in a good one.
The Cardinals are 4-4 (1-2), which doesn't sound all that great until you remember most folks picked them finish in last place. They, too, have a revitalized defense and a running game that's powered them to victories over UConn and Memphis. Most of their losses have been closely-contested affair as well, a credit to how quickly this program is getting back on its feet.
In both cases, you can point to the head coaches as the specific reason these programs are back on the road to recovery. Doug Marrone has 10 wins in less than two seasons at Syracuse, which is as many as his predecessor earned in four years total. It's cliche to say someone "bleeds" whatever color your program happens to be but there is no better way to describe the way the former SU lineman feels about this team. He came to Syracuse with a no-nonsense approach to rebuilding the program ... and so far he's right on track. Probably ahead of it, actually.
Charlie Strong came to Louisville from Florida where he was the defensive coordinator and immediately instilled the kind of physical, intense play that his defenses have been known for. What the Cardinals lack in talent they make up for in efficiency and accountability. Feel free to make mistakes against them, they'll be ready when you do.
For the Orange offense, the key will be establishing their powerful run attack. Senior Delone Carter is the workhorse and remains on course to rush for more than 1,000 yards for the second straight season. Junior Antwon Bailey has emerged as SU's double-threat back, a potent part of both the run and passing attack. SU's offensive line has exceeded expectations, though they will have to continue to do so without starting right tackle Michael Hay, who is out with a foot injury.
The Louisville offense will have a very different look this week, and not by choice. Starting quarterback Adam Froman and star RB Bilal Powell will both be sitting out the game with injuries. Coach Strong refuses to name a starter at either position until gameday. Vic Anderson, Louisville's top rusher before Powell took over, has returned from injury and is the leading choice for carries. At QB, Justin Blake and Will Stein are the likely choices to replace Froman.
Syracuse has not beaten a FBS opponent at home so far this season and their three major Big East wins all came on the road. Louisville is in the midst of an eleven-game Big East road losing streak. Something, as they say, will have to give.
This game represents not only a crossroads for both programs but also in the rivalry. It's been a rivalry defined by shared misery for three years now. For both programs, this season has turned into an early chance to end that misery. Who knows, perhaps in a year or two this will be one of the Big East's marquee games. Stranger things have happened.