LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Morgan Newton wasn't wrong. He just wasn't completely right.
The University of Kentucky quarterback told CatsIllustrated.com earlier this week that, essentially, the rivalry game is big for the University of Louisville because it is, well, one of the few quality games that the Cards generally play.
His words: "For Louisville, they don't have to go through the wear and tear that we go through week to week. So this is a big game for them because it's a non-conference game and it'll be competitive for them. You know, they'll end the season whatever and a couple of losses. They just don't play the schedule we play, so it's a big game for them for that reason."
Newton is right. U of L doesn't play the schedule UK plays. There's no debating that. You know who agrees with that statement? U of L coach Charlie Strong. At this year's Governor's Cup Luncheon, he was asked how his team might fare against a Southeastern Conference schedule, and actually laughed after the question was asked: "Oh. I don't want that schedule," Strong replied.
But Newton also is wrong if he assumes that UK holds a spot near the top of U of L's schedule difficulty. UK certainly is a game that U of L has circled. But last season, UK wound up being the ninth-toughest team on U of L's schedule, judging by Sagarin Ratings. UK finished the year ranked 85th. Syracuse, the lowest-rated team in the Big East, finished No. 86. U of L, on the other hand, was the seventh-toughest game on UK's schedule. Western Kentucky, Central Michigan, Jacksonville State and Ole Miss all finished below U of L.
What's that illustrate? I think it tells something.
At UK, there has often (but not every season) been this contrariety -- identification with the football-rich SEC, but performance on a par with the lower divisions of other conferences.
So the notion that this rivalry game would be a "bigger" game for U of L from a standpoint of schedule or season is a head-scratcher. UK should, based on history, view as biggest those games it has the best chances to win.
Beating Louisville last season would've been the second-highest quality win on UK's schedule, from a ranking standpoint, just below Tennessee. Moreover, it would have put UK into a bowl game.
So while correct in its estimate of the two teams' schedules, Newton's statement belies a problem in UK's mindset, if indeed it reflects the program's mindset. The glance ahead (in fact, the "wear and tear" does not enter into this rivalry, given that it is played so early) does not make sense. Nor does it seem to jibe with moves like putting a "Louisville wall" in the UK complex.
The very games that UK should see as biggest are U of L, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt, programs with whom it is competitive but against whom it has a fighting chance almost every season. Those are the key games for UK this year, and every year. In fact, the resurgence of U of L under Charlie Strong might be secondary in concern to UK to the rise of Vanderbilt, which beat the Wildcats 38-8 last season and have been raking in recruits recently, including one of the top players in the city of Louisville, a player who had committed to Louisville and backed out, but never seriously considered UK.
But there's one more thing to talk about while discussing conference consideration. The age-old question of UK becoming competitive in the SEC looms over the program. And this rivalry perfectly illustrates the difference in perspective.
There wasn't a great deal of difference between UK and U of L last season. The Cardinals beat the Wildcats by a touchdown in Lexington. They finished rated 25 spots higher in the Sagarin Ratings. But in their final games, U of L lost to an N.C. State team that was ranked lower than the Tennessee team that UK beat.
UK's offense was bad. It ranked 118th in the nation. U of L's offense wasn't much better. It ranked 103rd. The monthly splits are about the same. U of L's offense ranked 99th nationally in November. UK's was No. 118. The Wildcats were nothing if not consistent.
Kentucky, in November, ranked 41st in total defense. U of L ranked No. 65. (For the season, U of L ranked No. 23 in total defense, UK No. 58.)
The point of all those numbers? U of L was better, but it wasn't a world of difference.
Yet the outlooks for the two teams, and the mood during their offseasons, were worlds apart. U of L is upbeat, buoyed by the potential of quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, and a surprise piece of the Big East championship.
UK seems to have relapsed into the program's default depression, absent during the latter years of Rich Brooks, but having begun to re-establish itself over the past two seasons.
Swap the two teams, let the Cards finish the rivalry game and play Florida, LSU and South Carolina in their next three instead of Marshall, North Carolina and Cincinnati, the outlook might be different. (Not that UK would've beaten all of those if the roles were reversed, but the psychology of the schedule is far different. And there's an easy solution for all of that if UK believes it is in any way unfair. The next time the SEC expands, UK can support U of L for membership.) Throw Bridgewater into the fray against SEC defenses, and line them up to face the Cardinals again this season, and the enthusiasm heading into this season would be different.
That's not particularly earth-shattering, but it's worth remembering, given the signs of resignation beginning to show themselves in Big Blue Nation. Fans are fed up. Season-ticket holders are jumping off the bandwagon.
Those fans aren't without justification. But it'd be wise to remember the line between these programs is fairly fine, even if the lines now appear to be pointing different directions.
The teams aren't night and day, but the expectations and enthusiasm are.
That phenomenon is an opponent that doesn't appear on UK's schedule, but is one of the most formidable the program faces. UK football is a slippery slope on college football's highest mountain.
Sometimes UK's football program is better than its fans think it is. This might be one of those times.
But Newton's statement also shows the danger that SEC membership can leave the program believing it's better than it really is.