Louisville's success this season shocked everybody except the No. 22 Cardinals.
That won't be the case next year, not after Louisville upset No. 4 Florida in the Sugar Bowl Wednesday night. Expectations will be high heading into next season.
That's fine with the Cardinals, whose 33-23 victory over the heavily favored Gators brought a huge measure of vindication in a season in which they struggled for respect. After starting 9-0 but remaining outside the Bowl Championship Series title discussion, Louisville earned its second BCS bowl berth.
The landmark win against the Gators raises the bar higher for the Cardinals (11-2). Louisville returns 10 starters on offense and defense. The Cardinals could begin next fall as a top-10 team with coach Charlie Strong returning along with star quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who figures to be a Heisman Trophy candidate.
Strong and the Cardinals are savoring the moment but they're also thinking about how to build on it.
``We know we still have a long ways to go,'' said Strong, who last month spurned an offer to be Tennessee's head coach to remain at Louisville. ``You look at the teams that we beat this season. We played well, but we had to play well like that all season.
``We were not a consistent team this season. We struggled, had to come from behind seven games. ... I don't want to say where we would be, but we could continue to get better.''
Fans greeted the Cardinals at their team complex on their return home Thursday from New Orleans. Athletic department spokesman Kenny Klein said no formal celebration was planned for the team.
Still, the outlook is good reason Louisville to party.
The Cardinals improved to 2-0 in BCS games with the Sugar Bowl win. They led Florida from start to finish, something Louisville hadn't done since Sept. 15 when they beat North Carolina 39-34 in the Cardinals' third game of the season. Louisville's strength of schedule was a constant issue for the Cardinals, who managed to put answer the questions about whether they were legitimate or not with their bowl performance.
The next step is seeing how their 41 freshmen, 31 sophomores and 28 juniors mature next season.
``This is a team that can handle adversity,'' Strong said. ``We've been through a lot. We've been able to grow, and once you grow from adversity, it just makes you stronger. That's what this football team has done. It's grown so much.''
Defensively, Louisville must replace cornerback Adrian Bushell and linebacker Daniel Brown. The offense loses left tackle Alex Kupper, center Mario Benavides and wide receiver Andrell Smith.
Louisville's ground game could be deep again with second-leading rusher Senorise Perry (705 yards, 11 touchdowns) expected back after tearing his right ACL on Nov. 10. The junior will rejoin a backfield including redshirt freshman Corvin Lamb and juniors Dominique Brown and Jeremy Wright, who rushed for 84 yards and a TD in the bowl win.
However, Sugar Bowl MVP Bridgewater will command most of the attention, especially after his performance on center stage in the nationally televised game against a Southeastern Conference opponent. Bridgewater is the main reason the Cardinals will likely enter next season with the respect they craved this year.
``I've been saying it all year: He's one of the best quarterbacks and best player in the nation,'' Cardinals safety Calvin Pryor said of Bridgewater. ``They look at Louisville, don't give us any credit, but he's one of the best quarterbacks in the nation.''