It might not be exactly what Cardinal fans wanted considering the 9-0, 9th ranked start Louisville jumped out to this season - but it's definitely an improvement over the unranked status the team had entering the final week of the season to face Rutgers.
After a 10-2 regular season, capped at 11-2 after a huge upset Sugar Bowl win over then #3 ranked Florida, the Louisville Cardinals finish the season ranked #13 in the AP poll.
Louisville was ranked 22nd the week prior, and made the biggest move of any team, good or bad, jumping up nine spots. The biggest fall in the final poll came from the other big underdog of the BCS polls, the MAC's Northern Illinois. After falling 10-31 in the Orange Bowl to Florida State, the Huskies fell 6 spots from 16 to 22.
Atop the polls is Alabama, who crushed Notre Dame in last night's BCS Championship 42-14. The Tide led 14-0 after the first and 28-0 at halftime, and cruised to the 28 point win. Alabama running back Eddie Lacy was named offensive MVP, rushing for 140 yards on 20 carries with a touchdown. The win was Alabama's third title in four years, and the first back-to-back in the BCS era. Notre Dame drops to 0-4 in BCS games, having lost all four by at least 14 points.
Behind Alabama in the poll is Oregon at #2 and Ohio State at #3, with the previously unbeaten Notre Dame falling to #4. Georgia and Texas A&M finish in a tie for 5th, followed by Stanford 7th and South Carolina 8th.
The most disappointing part of the final poll for Louisville fans, who had hoped to perhaps sneak into the top ten after the huge bowl win, is that they still finished four spots behind the team they beat, Florida. The Gators fell from 4th to 9th (their #3 ranking was in the BCS), and Florida State rounds out the top ten.
The only other two teams ahead of Louisville are 11th ranked Clemson, who slid by LSU for a 25-24 win in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, and previously 7th ranked Kansas State, now at #12 following a 17-35 loss against Oregon in the Fiesta Bowl.
The good news for Louisville fans? Well, looking up, there are going to be a lot of changes. Most of the schools will graduate a host of seniors, but a large contingent of them also be sending a host of underclassmen to the NFL ranks. Louisville's Sugar Bowl opponent Florida, alone, has already had a handful of early-declaring players. The same can be said of other SEC teams Georgia and Texas A&M. Alabama is a junior-loaded squad, so we'll see in the coming days how many of those players declare.
But you can see a lot of change in on the field leadership. At Alabama, there were rumors about Saban-to-the-NFL again a few weeks ago, and especially now that talks between Cleveland and Oregon coach Chip Kelly have broken down, expect more fuel on that fire. At Oregon, even though they've dodged the Cleveland Browns bullet, there are still a number of vacant NFL positions out there. We're Louisville fans, and we've lived in the Bobby Petrino era, so we know never to go to sleep on a coach who constantly interviews elsewhere and says he's coming back.
Notre Dame will still have a solid group on defense, but that defense was decimated in last night's title game; we'll see if any early exits accompany senior star Manti Te'o to the NFL. Te'o, this year's Heisman runner-up, is a senior and expected to go in the top ten this April.
Half of Georgia's stout defense is going pro, although quarterback Aaron Murray has said publicly he will return for his senior campaign. Half of the Texas A&M offensive and defensive lines have declared for the draft, but they'll still be highly touted with Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel returning for his sophomore season. Florida State will graduate QB E.J. Manuel, as well as send a sizable portion of its defense to the NFL through graduation or early declaration. Kansas State will graduate it's leader, quarterback and Heisman Trophy finalist Colin Klein.
That still leaves an absurd amount of talent. Ohio State will return largely intact next season, as will Stanford and South Carolina (minus RB Marcus Lattimore, but sadly due to his injuries, they have become quite adept at playing without him). Despite all of their losses, Florida has the top recruiting class coming in, so they likely won't lose too much ground.
In short, it's far too early to try to project next year's preseason polls; there are still a lot of chips to fall in terms of players staying or going pro, and a few coaching moves to occur. But as it stands today, I wouldn't be shocked to see the Cardinals ranked a spot or two higher in next year's preseason with them returning the bulk of their team. They have the ability on paper today to possibly jump several spots up, but by the time next season starts and the Big East membership is settled, national perception will probably stunt the Cardinals from jumping so high.
So I'll go not-so-far-out-on-a-limb here and project Louisville to be ranked 12th in the preseason next year. I'd expect the top five to probably not be too far removed from what we see in the final AP poll today. Expect Alabama, with what they could be returning to be #1 (this could change if a host of juniors declare); Ohio State #2; Texas A&M #3; Georgia #4; and Oregon #5. I wouldn't be surprised to still see a couple more SEC teams ranked ahead of Louisville, particularly LSU and South Carolina, as well as Stanford out in the Pac-12. I think if Louisville were to be a surprisingly higher ranked team, this #8 spot is about as high as it could be.
Again, it's all just speculation, and we'll have to see how the next few months between now and the NFL Draft play out.
Congratulations again on a great season to Coach Strong and his Cardinals.