Strong recalled this week how Florida was No. 6 in the BCS standings in 2006 with just a few weeks left in the season. Losses by Rutgers, Michigan, Notre Dame and USC allowed the Gators to leap frog into the title game where they routed undefeated Ohio State 41-14.
Louisville (5-4, 3-1) is in second place in the Big East following last week's 38-35 win at then No. 24 West Virginia, Strong's first victory against a top 25 opponent. The Cardinals host Pittsburgh (4-5, 2-2) on Saturday and Strong's message to his team is simple: Take care of business and anything can happen with three games left to play.
"Just make sure that we don't stub our own toe looking ahead to somewhere else," Strong said. "Let's make sure we stay focused and our preparation is on Pittsburgh because we can't worry about what anyone else does."
The Panthers let a 10-point lead slip away in the second half against Cincinnati in a 26-23 defeat that's just the latest in series of close losses that first-year coach Todd Graham called "gut-wrenching." Louisville took a 16-7 lead into halftime against the Bearcats before losing 25-16.Graham has a similar win-then-wait message.
"You've got one team in the league (Cincinnati) that's unbeaten, then you have Louisville with one (loss) and then everyone else has two or more," Graham said. "And we play most of the guys left. We play Louisville this week, we beat them, we've got two and they've got two. West Virginia's got two and we play them the next week. So who knows what's going to happen?"
"We don't talk about really speculating," the Pittsburgh coach added. "Our single focus is to go beat Louisville and move onto the next game."
Pittsburgh wide receiver Mike Shanahan summed up the sentiments either team will hold following a win Saturday.
"Obviously, we need Cincinnati to fumble a little bit, but we just want to control what we can control," he said.
Late-season conference losses have robbed Pittsburgh of a chance at a BCS bid in each of the last three years and Myles Caragein partly attributed previous years' stumbles to peeking at the rest of the league.
"I think that's what's gotten us in trouble in the past, looking at that," Caragein said. "We're just trying to take it one step at a time."
Pittsburgh will take those steps without running back Ray Graham who was lost for the season with a right knee injury on Oct. 26 against Connecticut. The junior was second in the nation in rushing and while Wisconsin transfer Zach Brown is a capable backup, Strong said it has forced quarterback Tito Sunseri into more passing situations and an increased use of the option from the Panthers.
Pittsburgh is also facing significant injuries along its offensive line. Guard Matt Rotheram also suffered a season-ending injury against Connecticut and Chris Jacobson was lost for the year at Iowa. Lucas Nix's has been out since a Sept. 29 knee injury against South Florida but could return this week.
Protecting its quarterback against an attacking front could prove the key for both teams. Pittsburgh's 39 sacks allowed in nine games ranks last of 120 FBS schools, while Louisville fares only slightly better at 114th. Both defenses are among the national leaders in sacks with Pitt in at sixth (29 sacks) and Louisville 14th (26).
Strong remembers another fact that he's sharing with his team this week: Louisville found itself at 5-4 in his first year at the school before dropping two games and having to earn bowl eligibility in the season finale.
"We were in this position last year and we go lose to South Florida," he said. "Let's make sure we handle our business at home. It's our last game for our seniors here at home so let's make sure that we send them out the right way."
A win on senior day would be a first for Louisville since 2007 when they came back from an 18-point deficit in the 3rd quarter to beat Rutgers 41-38. The Cardinals' 17 seniors include cornerback Anthony Conner whose career ended Oct. 21 when he broke his neck on a tackle against Rutgers receiver Mohamed Sanu.
Conner had surgery Oct. 24 to stabilize the cervical fracture and was able to leave the hospital later that week. His locker room visit prior to the Oct. 29 game against Syracuse helped spark a 27-10 win. Senior defensive end Greg Scruggs said Conner still attends nearly every team meeting and practice.
"His presence alone is a motivator for the team," Scruggs said.