Anatomy of a BCS Buster

Originally Published: October 14, 2004
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

Louisville's meeting Thursday night with Miami is the biggest football game in school history -- and so much more.

The Cardinals also carry the hopes and dreams of Outsider Nation into the Orange Bowl with them. They are the BCS Buster of the Moment, sent in from the Conference USA boondocks to knock a hole in the ivory tower of the college football establishment.

To paraphrase the kid from "Hoosiers": This is for all the small schools who never got here. Or something like that. But how, exactly, does a college of modest tradition, backing and (most important) conference affiliation rise to this level? What does it take to become a dues-paying, giant-slaying, BCS-dismaying Buster?

Here's your nine-point Buster profile -- what it takes to make the nation notice your off-Broadway program and regard it as a clear and present danger to the status quo:

1. Create preseason buzz

Urban Meyer is No. 1-10 to replace Ty Willingham at ND.
The best way to do that is by winning a bowl game with a bunch of returning talent. Textbook example: Utah, which started the season ranked after winning the Liberty Bowl to finish 2003 10-2.

Lose a bowl game and you're probably starting the next season on the outside of the Top 25, like Louisville did after being blown out in the GMAC Bowl by Miami of Ohio. The Cards did have enough returning talent to at least be on the radar of most voters, and it didn't take them long to enter the polls. And when you do that, suddenly your highlights get on the air, your scores are updated frequently and your box scores make newspapers nationwide.

2. Build (or at least market) around someone voters, media members and fans recognize and want to follow
Could be a hot young coach, like Urban Meyer. Or a big-numbers returning quarterback, like Utah's Alex Smith or Louisville's Stefan LeFors. Or a flashy running back like Memphis' DeAngelo Williams. (Think of all the publicity Marshall sucked in with Randy Moss, Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich, back in the Thundering Herd's salad days.)

Even Louisville coach Bobby Petrino qualifies for name recognition, if not in an ideal way. His name went nationwide last November when it came out that he was talking to Auburn behind the not-yet-fired back of Tommy Tuberville -- his former boss on The Plains. Petrino came across as a weasel, but everyone figured he had to be a really good coach for a big-time program to chase him in that manner.

Bottom line: It's tough to be noticed when you're both cloutless and faceless.

3. Get some players from somebody else's hotbed
If you're from Buster territory, chances are you're not sitting on a mother lode of talent. Utah, Boise State, Louisville -- none of them are exactly located in "Friday Night Lights" territory.

So you go where the players are, and find a way to get them. If you're Utah, you go to California. If you're Louisville, you go to Florida (26 Floridians on the roster, third-highest total in the nation for an out-of-state school) and Alabama.

4. When there are stars available in your backyard, get them
Beat back the big boys and sign your local heroes. The Cardinals currently have the four most heralded skill-position players to come out of Kentucky since NFL QBs Tim Couch and Chris Redman: quarterback Brian Brohm, who turned down Notre Dame and Tennessee; running back Michael Bush, who turned down Ohio State and Auburn; running back Eric Shelton, who transferred from Florida State; and wide receiver Montrell Jones, who had been dismissed at Tennessee.

(Sometimes, in Busterville, you have to take a chance or two, or settle for a stud on the rebound. Remember, Moss only wound up at Marshall because Notre Dame dropped him during high school and Florida State sent him packing as a freshman.)

The fact that Brohm and Bush are now in the same backfield seems a remarkable coup. When both were high-school quarterbacks, they faced off in a state championship game of epic proportion. Brohm's team beat Bush's 59-56 -- in regulation.

5. Beat somebody early

Alex Smith
Alex Smith is a Heisman candidate and a Utah media darling thanks to their win over Texas A&M.
Starting the season with a victory over someone from a "name" conference justifies the preseason hype.

This season Utah brought in Texas A&M to open the season and stomped the Aggies in front of a raucous home crowd -- something guaranteed to get noticed. Louisville opened with a 28-0 win over Kentucky -- a program in the dumps, to be sure, but nevertheless an SEC member.

Or beating someone early can simply make the public aware that you're there. Fresno State went from anonymity to media darling in 2001 after upsetting Colorado, Oregon State and Wisconsin to open the year. Then the Bulldogs did it again this year, opening with wins at Washington and Kansas State. They simply couldn't sustain it either year.

6. Play when people notice that you're playing
Saturday games will be crowded off the marquee by the glamour conferences. Better, sometimes, to find the soft spot in the programming to maximize your exposure.

Louisville has played on every night of the week in recent years. In fact, the Miami game begins a stretch of four straight weeknight games on ESPN, and the season-opening Kentucky game has become a traditional Sunday-of-Labor-Day-weekend ESPN game. Utah will go on a weeknight -- the A&M rout was on a Thursday night. Marshall helped build its reputation with non-traditional game dates.

7. When you're ready -- and even when you're not -- play somebody big
Savaging the Directional Techs on the schedule is nice, but who does it impress? If you want to get beyond the Who Have They Played dismissal, you have to play someone people notice.

If you're Louisville, you have to play an opponent like the almighty Hurricanes -- on the road, of course. Miami will come to Papa John's Cardinal Stadium, but not first. That's not the way it works.

Two years ago the Cards made a big ripple by upsetting Florida State in a monsoon at home -- after playing in Tallahassee two years earlier. You can guarantee that the Seminoles won't come back to Louisville in Bobby Bowden's lifetime, but even this victory rang slightly hollow: the Cards had looked too far ahead and already lost twice. This is their next big chance.

8. Be exciting
Southern Mississippi is every bit as unbeaten as Utah, Louisville and Boise State, but the Golden Eagles are ranked well behind that trio. Why? Part of it could be style of play.

The Golden Eagles aren't the most scintillating team to watch. Louisville, which averaged nearly 500 yards of offense per game last year and eight times scored 30 or more points, at least promised some pyrotechnics.

9. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em
Next year, Louisville will go into the Big East and won't have to worry about trying to bust into the BCS.

Pat Forde is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.