Belk Bowl director Will Webb called Louisville "the best 7-5 team in the nation," and Charlie Strong is excited about the way his Cardinals are heading into the post-season.
"Right toward the end I thought we were playing better than a lot of teams in the country. We're a good football team and each game we got better."
Louisville earned a share of the Big East championship with West Virginia and Cincinnati and missed out on the BCS due to the league's tie-breaker rule. Still, Strong's program, which is making a second straight bowl appearance, is clearly heading in the right direction.
"We had some youth on this team, but it grew up really fast," Strong said. "I'm excited the way this football team was able to overcome the adversity in the beginning to make a run at the end and put ourselves into position to become co-champions. We're excited about the direction of this football program."
Though his team finished as Big East co-champs, Strong felt his players were disrespected by league coaches in all-conference balloting. Only corner Adrian Bushell and safety Hakeem Smith were named to the All-Big East first team last week, while linebacker Dexter Heyman was named to the second team. Teddy Bridgewater earned Big East Newcomer of the Year honors.
"We still don't have the respect around this league," Strong said. "We only three players that were voted all-conference and none of our players on offense were selected. I thought we should have had more. We're still young and we know someday we'll gain the respect we need around this league."
"I thought he should have been first team all-conference," Strong said of Heyman. "To me he was the best defensive player in the conference this season."
Louisville has practiced the past two weekends, focusing on fundamentals and technique. Strong said his team will begin preparing for NC State Wednesday. The Cardinals will leave for Charlotte December 22 where they'll continue bowl preparations for the Wolfpack.
"NC State is a team with a lot of talent and a good defense," Strong said. "They have a corner who led the country in interceptions and their quarterback is able to move the ball down the field on offense. It's going to be a great challenge and we have to be prepared to play."
Strong noted the similarities between the two teams.
"NC State is kind of like us. They won three out of their last four and beat a good Clemson team. That comeback was unbelievable against Maryland in their last game," Strong said. "Defensively, they apply a lot of pressure and blitz a lot and offensively they throw the ball very well. We're going to have to play well up front on both sides of the ball."
With the Belk Bowl in their home state, Strong figures NC State will have a strong advantage in Charlotte. He's hoping Louisville fans will show up in large numbers in Charlotte to support the Cards.
"It is a road game for us," Strong said. "You'd like to see our ticket sales increase because we're going on the road. Raleigh is fairly close to Charlotte so I'd like to see our fans there, which I know they're going to get onboard and come down and watch us play."
Strong hopes Louisville can use the Belk Bowl as a spring board for next season.
"We expect to be in a bowl game every year," Strong said. We're playing a really good ACC school, NC State, and we need to play well."