The University of Louisville is used to big-game atmospheres. In the past few seasons the Cardinals have faced Florida in the Sugar Bowl, Miami twice, Notre Dame and Clemson on the road, and Florida State to name a few, so the challenge of taking on 13th-ranked Georgia in the Belk Bowl later this month is one happily accepted by this squad.
“We're extremely happy that we get to go to another bowl game, just another opportunity to go and play the game of football,” said junior defensive end Sheldon Rankins. “With it being a storied program like the University of Georgia, we are extremely happy for this opportunity. My freshman year we were granted the opportunity to play the University of Florida, last year the University of Miami and this year the University of Georgia, so its another great opportunity and we're looking forward to it.”
For Rankins and nine other Georgia natives on the roster, this one means a little bit more. Rankins grew up in Covington, Geo., about an hour southeast from the University of Georgia campus and sported a Bulldogs t-shirt throughout his high school years.
“Me personally, I'm a fan of college football as a whole, but with Georgia being right down the street, it was always a program that I was able to watch and enjoyed watching and following a lot of their players,” he explained. “When it rolled across the TV that we were playing Georgia, my eyes kind of lit up a little bit, so I'm pretty happy about this match-up.”
The game against the Bulldogs at Bank of American Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., not only means playing against a program that he grew up following, but also against an “endless” list of players on the Georgia roster that he's familiar with.
“It's Georgia,” he said. “Me being a Georgia native and going up against some close friends that play for the University of Georgia, it's going to be a great game for us.”
In addition to the players hailing from the Peach State, U of L defensive coordinator Todd Grantham left the Bulldogs program to join Bobby Petrino's staff. He recruited many on the UGA roster and very familiar with the offensive schemes.
“I know he'll pull everything out of his bag of tricks for this one,” Rankins said with a laugh. “It's another game, he'll give us a great game plan and we'll go in and execute.”
That game plan will focus on slowing a rushing attack that ranks 12th in the nation and features SEC Freshman of Year running back Nick Chubb, who has rushed for more 1,200 yards and 12 touchdowns this season.
“Chubb is a great running back and they have great running backs behind him, so we have to do our part up front to contain the run game,” said Rankins.
Having started all 12 games his season, Rankins leads the team with 7 sacks and his 12.5 tackles for a loss is second best. While the defense has ranked among the nation's best all season, Rankins knows that he and the entire defensive front continues to improve.
“We can always get better,” he said. “A couple plays, individually and as a group that we've left out there on the field, so we are going into this game with the mindset that we still have room to improve, go out there and put our best foot forward.”
A win over the Bulldogs would further validate Louisville's impressive first year in the ACC and mark the third consecutive season that the Cardinals have finished with at least 10 wins.
“It would mean a lot,” Rankins said. “When I came here, Louisville was an up and coming program and for us to establish ourselves with 10 wins in our first season in the ACC would be a big milestone for us, as far as the players that are playing now, the seniors and for recruits looking forward to coming to play for this program.”