One week from the start of the college football season, the University of Louisville faces expectations unparalleled by anything the program has experienced in its history.
The lofty expectations placed on the team have been warranted. The team returns key starters on both sides of the ball, including possible Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, as well as the entire coaching staff from a team that went 11-2, repeated as Big East champions and left a national impression with a convincing win over Florida in the Allstate Sugar Bowl in 2012.
The Sugar Bowl win has admittedly provided a boost in confidence for many players on the team. Junior wide receiver DeVante Parker said the 33-23 victory "showed us that we can compete with the best teams in the nation, and we proved it that day."
"You can see in the locker room people have more confidence walking around," senior middle linebacker Preston Brown says of the team's trademark victory.
But Brown is also quick to point out that while win is a nice banner for the program, it is now part of the team's past, and there is still work to be done. "As it pertains to next year, I don't think it'll matter that much to us, because it was last year. It's a good thing to have, but it doesn't have anything to do with this year."
While the team may be conditioned by their coaching staff to put the Sugar Bowl in their rearview mirror, to many fans and members of the media, the image of Terrell Floyd intercepting Jeff Driskel's first pass on Jan. 2, or DeVante Parker tightroping the corner of the endzone for a deep touchdown grab on a perfect Bridgewater toss, remains at the forefront of their memories, setting the bar remarkably high for the 2013 squad.
So how does the team handle the pressure brought on by their previous success?
"Taking it one week at a time" is the popular answer among players when asked how they handle what the nation expects from them in the months to come, but according to senior wide receiver Damian Copeland, coach Charlie Strong has provided the team with a few cautionary tales to serve as motivation for the team to maintain focus. Namely last year's USC team, who with then-Heisman favorite Matt Barkley entered the season as the favorite to win the National Title. "They started the season No. 1 and dropped all the way out," Copeland says. "We can't get fully happy. We have to stay hungry and humble."
U of L offensive coordinator Shawn Watson echoes Copeland's sentiment when asked how the team will handle entering the season ranked in the top ten. "We have to stay focused on what got us here: hard work."
Make no mistake, the team's insistence on keeping focus amid the hype is not to say that they lack for confidence. "I think this defense can be the best in the country," says senior defensive end Marcus Smith. "We have the potential to be; we have the players that we need."
But the team also has faith in its obvious leader, Bridgewater, whose constant cool and collected on-field demeanor has led many to believe that he will one day be NFL franchise quarterback material.
"When you see your quarterback poised, it makes you calm and poised as well," Copeland said. "He's a pro at everything he does, and we feed off of that."
Even with the high expectations, their leader has stayed calm.
"I don't put any pressure on myself at all," Bridgewater said.
Bridgewater talked about a special reminder that Watson gave the team recently: a set of red and black wristbands with the phrase "Earn it," inscribed.
"We have to go out and earn it this year," Bridgewater says. "We know that nothing is going to be handed to us."