The quote, as reported by the C-J’s Brian Bennett: “We’re definitely in a rebuilding process. We’re very limited from a depth standpoint. The next two years … I just want to get through them.”
I’m surprised because it’s hard to look at this team — some great talent on the offensive side notwithstanding — and conclude anything other than that it is rebuilding.
Apparently, that’s not at all the outlook that U of L football fans wanted to hear. There are some I’ve talked to who expected to pick right back up after last year’s 6-6 debacle and jump right back on the 8- or 9-win, national ranking track.
Those people are kidding themselves. Was this statement a lowering of expectations? You can bet your loge seat on it.
But there’s a little more to it than that on both sides.
First, people are still, still, very much craving a plausible, detailed explanation for why a program one year removed from a BCS Bowl victory, a team that included five NFL Draft picks (and maybe a couple of first-rounders in the rising junior class), was losing to programs like Syracuse and UConn and sitting at home for the holidays. Other schools last year with five players taken in the Draft were Texas (10-3, Holiday Bowl champions), Auburn (9-3, Chick Fil-A Bowl winners), Arizona State (10-3, lost in Holiday Bowl), Texas A&M (7-6, lost in Alamo Bowl) and, to keep the Cards company, Ole Miss, which went 3-9. Rebels coach Ed Orgeron, incidentally, was fired.
Fans were told that the cupboard was bare when it plainly wasn’t. They were told that there were lingering discipline problems but weren’t given details, even after the head coach said he would discuss them in more detail. So the rankled feeling among fans has not gone away.
At the same time, things heading into this season are not as they were even a year ago. Between losses and defections, this team has a serious depth problem that won’t be fixed quickly. An already suspect defense was decimated.
Jurich is right. That the program is in rebuilding mode cannot be questioned. Whether it should be is a point that will continue to be questioned.
But there’s another side to this. The lowering of expectations does not occur without a potential payoff. Even with a depleted team, this U of L team has a good shot at getting back into the bowl picture.
Offensively, the Cards will continue to put up big numbers. They’ve got a budding star running back in Bilal Powell and another proven back in Brock Bolen. They’ve got a couple of Outland Trophy candidates on the offensive line in Eric Wood and George Bussey. Hunter Cantwell is a major talent and is bidding to be the first quarterback taken in the NFL Draft. They’ll need some receivers to emerge, and they must find a tight end.
Defensively, the talent level has dwindled alarmingly, particularly in the secondary. But consider this: If the Cardinals do two simple things — line up in the right place and tackle people when they get to them — they’ll be better defensively than they were a year ago, no matter what the personnel.
Even in a state of lower expectations, U of L fans should be able to expect to beat Connecticut and Syracuse. They should expect to win non-conference games at home.
This team needs to beat Kentucky — but that game looks like a toss up at the very best for U of L. The home game against Kansas State will be big, as will the road game at Memphis. Win those, and things begin to look up.
The problem for the Cards right now is that I don’t see them beating South Florida, Cincinnati or West Virginia at home without some major defensive strides, or some of these junior college transfers actually panning out.
It’s nice to have eight home games, but you have to do better than split them. So turning PJCS back into an inhospitable venue is an important order of business for the Cards this year.
Either way, the apparatus that built nine consecutive bowl games and an eventual BCS bid and victory, at least in part, has been damaged. The stadium and facilities have not changed, but some other infrastructures have been shaken. Is that not what you’re saying when you acknowledge that something must be rebuilt?
The momentum has been broken. The important thing this year is to get it back, or this “rebuilding” mode could last longer than anyone at U of L wants. One interesting thing to watch is how many freshman redshirt this season, even if things get tough. When John L. Smith had a rough start at U of L (and the program was in hard-core rebuilding after a 1-10 season), Jurich told Smith that he shouldn’t play the freshmen, no matter how bad it got, to build for the future. We’ll see what the case is this year. I’m pretty certain the need to win will win out in some of those decisions. There are a lot of factors at play here (momentum, perception, stadium expansion) that weren’t a decade ago.
If you’re a U of L fan looking for reasons to think that normalcy has returned, and by “normalcy,” I mean being a conference contender and bowl lock, I don’t think you’ve gotten those reasons from Jurich or from circumstances surrounding the U of L program.
There are still a lot of things to be ironed out on Floyd Street, it seems. Reports out of there are that the attitude is improving, that the locker room atmosphere is good, that the staff changes have had some very positive effects and that things are moving in the right direction.
But if Jurich’s comment conveys anything it’s that fans will be asked for more patience.
That can’t be much of a surprise.
Down memory lane. A friendly reader asserted that I hadn’t challenged anyone at U of L over claims that were made about why last season went the way it did and assertions that expectations from fans and media were too high. A few excerpts (please note, all of the following ran in the newspaper, there are other examples from this blog that I did not include):
Sept. 21, 2007
But the message of this upheaval (after the UK loss) to Kragthorpe is just as clear. Fans aren’t just upset at losing a game. It’s far more. They’re worried about seeing a defense that can’t even get lined up properly. They’re confused by a lack of candor from the coach. The national championship aspirations for this team were out of line but the team’s own media guide this year trumpeted that the team has “the talent to repeat as Big East champions and a return to a BCS bowl game.”
At the moment, those projections seem in serious doubt. And though frustration is high over what happened at UK, it’s just as high over what might happen in the next nine games.
“It falls on me,” Kragthorpe said of the responsibility for improving the situation. “Because I’m the ship’s captain. In a situation like this it’s time for me to make sure the ship is going in the right direction.”
Folks around here don’t know much about sailing. They’d settle for a discussion of the secondary. But the question facing fans, players and coaches alike is this: What kind of ship will it be?
Maybe they should replace that train whistle at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium with a fog horn. Because right now it’s pretty tough to see.
Sept. 26, 2007
Were we all crazy, fans and media alike? Did we miss the signs? I’m pretty sure three weeks ago we weren’t just imagining that U of L was ranked in the top 10 and at least had a hope of competing for the Big East championship and a Bowl Championship Series berth.
It’s a fair question. So I went back through the preseason press clippings to find some answers.
It should be remembered that in 2002, then-U of L coach John L. Smith did nothing but pour cold water on the preseason hype. Consider these statements he made one week before his team’s upset loss to Kentucky. (A warning to U of L fans who have grown accustomed to the politically correct discourse of Bobby Petrino and Steve Kragthorpe: The candid nature of these comments may be shocking.)
“We think we’re really special right now — too special to come out and play hard,” Smith said. “…We had a big, long talk about thinking that we’re special but not having shown that we’re special. … Hope we don’t believe what people are saying. … But to be perfectly honest, I don’t know.”
Before this season, we got no such warnings. Kragthorpe said this week he had concerns about the defense once he saw the inexperience and lack of depth. But when defensive coordinator Mike Cassity was asked on media day about all the starters the defense lost, he said, “We did lose some quality players. But as I turn around and look, I see the Lattarius Thomases and Jon Russells and Rod Councils and Bobby Buchanans. Those guys have played a lot of football.”
He went on to mention at least six others who had significant seasoning. In short, he touted the defensive experience.
With practices closed to the public and media, the main preseason indicators came from practice reports produced by the program. We were told the defense dominated the next-to-last scrimmage. Kragthorpe touted the offense-defense “balance” in its final scrimmage.
In 2002 the expectations were out of whack. In 2007 it’s the team. The Cardinals simply are not what we thought they were. Or even what they thought they were. The national championship talk was nuts but it wasn’t coming from the media. Nobody on the C-J staff picked U of L to go to the title game, or even a BCS game.
I picked them to go to the Brut Sun Bowl. Even that looks pretty shaky now.
What does any of this matter? It doesn’t, except to say that while sometimes even we bomb-sniffing dogs can’t smell the explosives for the cologne, that wasn’t the case with this team.
The people who expected better weren’t out of line. They just believed the company line.
Sept. 28, 2007
(U of L’s) is a roster that isn’t so much used to heeding advice as responding to threats. Bobby Petrino was an intimidator, banned cell phones and hats from the football facility and, in general, flew into a rage at anything less than perfection.
No. Media aren’t invited. All anyone can judge is what happens on the field. And off.
And though it’s far too early to make a final judgment, the circumstantial evidence doesn’t look good.
Oct. 7, 2007
Kragthorpe has faced criticism both fair and unfair just as he faced expectations that were both fair and unfair. It wasn’t fair to expect him to improve on last season’s finish that would’ve meant playing for a national championship. It was fair, however, to expect him to beat Syracuse and Utah.
Given the talent lost, it wasn’t fair to expect the defense to play at the level it did a year ago. But it was fair to expect it not to be among the worst in the nation.
The criticism Kragthorpe faces for play-calling that has made a once-powerful offense now one-dimensional seems fair. Criticism for some on-field decisions, fourth-down risks or a head-scratching onside kick is fair.
At the same time, with the season half over, the mantra of “blame the coach” could be too simplistic. If there’s a disconnect between players and coaches, it can’t only be chalked up to the coaches. If players are getting into trouble off the field, that can’t all be chalked up to the coaches, either.
With no answers being offered, there’s plenty of chalk dust to go around and it will keep making the real picture of this team harder to see.
Nov. 18, 2007
I’ll give you all of (the excuses) — even the ones I don’t buy completely.
I’ll tell you what I won’t give you — that an offense with quarterback Brian Brohm, wide receiver Harry Douglas and the linemen and tight ends U of L has should be as ineffective as this one has been over the past month.
. . .
Until the final couple of garbage-time drives last night (at South Florida), U of L’s offense consisted of Brian Brohm to Harry Douglas. You’d expect that of a guy playing with the Cards on his PlayStation at home. Not from the actual team. That big laminated Card that coach Steve Kragthorpe holds? I wondered at times if it wasn’t a big Waffle House menu. Because the Cards looked scattered, smothered and covered for most of the night.
. . .
Regardless of mitigating circumstances, no coaching staff can emerge from a season like this without facing some harsh music.
Losing is one thing. A potential losing season is yet another. The program’s most lopsided loss in 20 years is another still.
Last night, the fire wasn’t there. Last night was a point lower than the team has reached this season, and perhaps as low as any seen around here since the Ron Cooper era — and t
hat’s not taking anything away from an outstanding South Florida team.
Yes, programs have down years. Yes, this staff was dealt some difficult Cards. But I don’t think even they believe this team should look as bad as it looked last night.
The last time U of L’s football team was in this state, it left with a trophy full of oranges. I can’t blame a lot of fans now who feel as if they’ve been handed a lemon.
Nov. 19, 2007
No matter how frustrated the fans, U of L cannot act rashly with this coach, and it should not.
But fans do deserve hope. Many are paying NFL prices. They deserve not to feel blamed for what is happening. They deserve not to be treated like outsiders. They deserve explanations instead of justifications. And they deserve to know how, specifically, Kragthorpe plans to fix things.
This frustration is not media-driven. From the outside — and none of us has seen the inside — this team has looked poorly organized and ill-motivated. From flipping birds at Kentucky to saliva-gate at West Virginia to Willie Williams and his alleged pot grazing, this season has left U of L fans confused and embarrassed.
The on-field problems have been there on national television for all to see. And they are significant enough that change is a necessity. Offense, defense, special teams. Player, media and public relations.
He said he encountered off-the-field problems that he had not expected, but he would not elaborate. He said he’d get into those more after the season . Yesterday, with the season painfully over and no bowl bid on the way, he declined to elaborate, even when I asked him not to name names but merely to shed light on just the nature of the problems.
He responded by noting that Petrino had one way of dealing with disciplinary issues but that his is different. As Brian Brohm pointed out recently, Petrino dealt in intimidation and fear; Kragthorpe punishes with playing time.
Kragthorpe said there were ” legalities” involved in discussing it further. Maybe he doesn’t want to further alienate players that he’ll need to win back. Maybe that’s reasonable. But if that’s the case, he shouldn’t have cast aspersions on them, the program and Petrino by acknowledging them publicly in the first place. The reality can’t be worse than the rumors.