ORLANDO — Louisville and Miami will be playing for more than a trophy in tonight's Russell Athletic Bowl. The matchup will also provide both teams with a glimpse of what's ahead.
Next season will bring the latest round of conference realignment, and with it the 18th-ranked Cardinals' move into the Hurricanes' Atlantic Coast Conference.
"That's where we're trying to get to," Cardinals coach Charlie Strong said. "We know we still have a long ways to go, but this is going to be a measuring stick for us as we go into the ACC next season. … We'll just see how far we have to go."
For the Hurricanes, just being back in a bowl has been reason to celebrate. Miami is appearing in its first bowl since 2010 after self-imposing a two-year postseason ban during an NCAA investigation.
Coach Al Golden, coaching his first bowl game at Miami, said it's been a week well spent as he tries to post the program's first bowl victory since 2006.
"Obviously we've been encumbered a little bit more than we would have wanted to for the last two years," Golden said. "But we feel like we are moving the program forward, and we do have an opportunity with a win to be the first team in Miami in a decade to win 10 games. Given the circumstances and the adversity we've dealt with that would be a great task and tremendous honor for our senior class."
The Cardinals missed out on their opportunity for a second straight BCS bowl berth after blowing a 21-point lead in a loss to eventual American Athletic Conference champion UCF.
Strong said the ability of his team to recover from that disappointment showed a lot about the culture they've tried to build. A win tonight would give the Cardinals the school's second 12-win season.
"We knew there was going to be some highs and lows this season, but our players were able to bounce back," Strong said. "I think about the one loss that we had, we didn't let that game go beat us twice."
Cardinals junior quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has been Strong's starter for 26 of the 36 victories during his tenure. Despite seeing his numbers tail off slightly, Bridgewater enters tonight's game still high on NFL draft boards if he comes out.
Bridgewater, a Miami native, originally committed to the Hurricanes before reopening his recruitment after Randy Shannon's firing. While a victory against his hometown school could be a nice way to end his college career, whether tonight's game will be his last in a Cardinals' uniform remains unclear.
"I feel that I'm ready, but I also feel that I'm not. It can go either way," he said. "You always have areas that you can improve. After this game I will just evaluate everything."