When coach Brad Lambert was getting Charlotte’s football program off the ground in 2012, facing a nationally-ranked team – much less one from a “Power 5” conference – was the furthest thing on his mind, he said.
Yet that’s where Lambert and the 49ers are as they prepare for Thursday night’s season opener against ACC power Louisville at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium in Louisville, Ky. Kickoff is 7 p.m.
“It’s amazing to me how fast we’ve gone, and this kinda speaks to that,” Lambert said during Tuesday’s weekly news conference. “We’re going into Year 4, and we’re going on the road on a Thursday night. We’ve come a long way in a big hurry.
“It’s going to be a tough challenge for us, but I like where our guys are. We’ve had a really good camp, and our guys have worked extremely hard since January. I know they’re going to be excited to go up and play in that environment.”
Thursday’s game is not only Charlotte’s first against a Top 25 team – the Cardinals are No. 19 in the Associated Press preseason poll – but it’s only the team’s second against a team from a Power 5 conference. The 49ers lost to SEC-member Kentucky 58-10 last November.
Power 5 conferences include the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and the SEC.
“When you go play an SEC team, that’s huge,” Lambert said. “But this one is on a Thursday night to open the year, against a ranked team that has a lot of players back. Bobby Petrino has got Louisville back to where they want to be.”
Under coach Petrino, the Cardinals are coming off an 8-5 season in 2015 (5-3 ACC, good for third place in the Atlantic Division) and a 27-21 victory against Texas A&M in the Music City Bowl.
But the 49ers – coming off a 2-10 finish (0-8 in Conference USA) in 2015, their first as a Football Bowl Subdivision program – say they’re ready for the challenge of playing a Top 25 team.
“Being here from Day 1, there’s so much stuff that we’ve seen,” said cornerback Terrence Williams, one of 19 redshirt seniors and 28 seniors total on Charlotte’s roster.
“We’ve played against these teams, so to see it this year is definitely a blessing. We just want to go out there with a chip on our shoulders and play the best that we can.”
▪ Louisville opens its season ranked in the Top 25 for the first time since 2013, when the Cardinals were No. 9. They finished that season No. 25.
▪ Louisville returns 17 starters – 10 on offense, seven on defense – from last year’s team, including preseason All-ACC picks Keith Kelsey and Devonte Fields at linebacker and defensive tackle DeAngelo Brown.
▪ Louisville’s 2016 schedule includes games against six teams that played in bowl games last season: ACC foes Clemson, Duke, Florida State and N.C. State; and nonconference games against Marshall and Houston.
49ers by the numbers
5: Number of opponents Charlotte will face that played in a bowl last season - nonconference are against Louisville and Temple, and C-USA games against Marshall, Middle Tennessee and Southern Miss.
15: Number of returning starters: nine on offense, six on defense.
34: The number of consecutive starts Charlotte nose tackle Larry Ogunjobi has made – every game the 49ers have played.