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No. 18 Louisville playing with something to prove

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP)

Louisville enters Saturday's Big East Conference opener at Pittsburgh unbeaten and seeking some national respect.

The No. 18 Cardinals have been ranked all season and are 5-0 for the first time since 2006. But after losses by eight teams ahead of them - including LSU, Florida State, Georgia and Texas last weekend - they have moved up just seven spots.

That's added motivation for Louisville to keep doing what its been doing - winning.

The Cardinals want to win the Big East and clinch an automatic Orange Bowl berth. But they will probably have to finish undefeated to have even an outside shot of being considered for the Bowl Championship Series title game.

The first BCS standings will be released on Sunday.

But coach Charlie Strong said first things first.

''Now we start the real season, which I call the real season because it's the conference season,'' Strong said earlier this week. ''Everything from here out counts.''

Louisville shared last season's conference championship with Cincinnati and West Virginia, which it beat in Morgantown. The Mountaineers' win over Cincinnati helped them earn the Orange Bowl berth.

But now No. 5 West Virginia is a member of the Big 12. Next season Pittsburgh and Syracuse will join the Atlantic Coast Conference. What's left is an image of a foundering conference lacking strong teams.

That sounds strange considering three Big East teams - Louisville, No. 20 Rutgers (5-0, 2-0) and No. 21 Cincinnati (4-0, 1-0) are all ranked in this week's poll. Nonetheless, the remaining Big East teams seem to have to prove their worth - simply winning is not enough.

''Because of what's happened to the conference over the last seven or eight years, I think the perception is that the Big East is a step or two beneath the other conferences that are out there,'' ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit said. ''And yet, here they have three teams that are ranked.

''For Louisville, Cincinnati and even Rutgers I just think they're getting attention for the first five or six weeks and now that they've gotten some attention, people are going to sit back and evaluate them and take into consideration whether they're a top-15, top-10 or eventually a top-seven or -eight type of team. All three will need a lot of help to move up the BCS standings.''

Especially Louisville, further hampered by opponents' poor record.

The five teams it has beaten are a combined 6-23. The Cardinals' next seven opponents are 20-15, but only 11-15 when Cincinnati and Rutgers are removed from the equation.

All three ranked Big East schools will face each other over the next seven weeks, and that shake-up could affect outsiders' perceptions as well.

''If you look at it now, it's hard to imagine a game between Louisville and Rutgers at the end of the year (going) a long way toward determining who eventually emerges as the Big East champion,'' added Herbstreit, whose preseason pick was Pitt.

While the Cardinals can't change their opponents' fortunes, they aim to avoid playing down to their level.

The Cardinals hope last week's bye will help correct inconsistency that has slowed their ascent. After a fast offensive start in which they averaged 35 points and nearly 468 yards per game at home, they've dropped to 24.5 and 296 respectively playing the past two games on the road.

Bad weather might explain Louisville's minus-2 turnover margin the past two weeks, but for the most part the Cardinals have struggled to put a complete game together. Against North Carolina last month, Louisville led 36-7 at one point before the Tar Heels rallied to within five, falling short of the upset when the Cardinals deflected an end-zone pass.

In road victories over FIU (1-5) and Southern Mississippi (0-5), the Cardinals have had to overcome slow starts before rallying and then holding on.

''We haven't played very well the last couple of games,'' Louisville offensive guard Jake Smith said. ''It's evident, you guys know and we know. We have to come out and prove we're a lot better team than that because we haven't been playing to our level.''

The Cardinals would certainly love to do that to avenge last November's home 21-14 loss to the Panthers, their last regular season defeat. Though Pitt was upset by Football Championship Subdivision member Youngstown State and is coming off last week's conference loss at Syracuse, Louisville expects a tough game.

The Panthers will certainly be the most physical opponent Louisville has played.

''When you play Pitt, you learn how smash-mouthed and hard-nosed you are,'' Smith added. ''(You) not only have to match a team's physicality, but you have to overcome it and show that you're a more physical team. It's going to be a tough task because Pitt is hard-nosed and smash mouth. The most physical team is going to win this game.''

In spite of everything, the Cardinals have the record they wanted and are confident of building on it. Louisville has won 10 of 11 games going back to last season and enters the toughest part of its schedule more experienced than a year ago.

Maximizing that and other skills will determine if the Cardinals complete a perfect season and see their bowl prospects end in a best-case scenario.

''We haven't really shown our abilities the last few games, but we know we have that ability,'' junior safety Hakeem Smith said. ''We've got to use all our talent and blow teams out, put up numbers, basically just showcase everybody's ability.

''We have to prove ourselves, and things will fall into place.''

---

AP freelance writer Josh Abner contributed to this report

Tagged: Rutgers, Cincinnati, Louisville, Hakeem Smith, Jake Smith

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