CRAWFORD | Louisville, Kentucky meet in a transition season
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Somebody might as well say it. The buzz isn't quite the same for this year's installment of the University of Louisville-University of Kentucky football rivalry.
Not at the ticket office, where UK says the game is far from a sellout. Upper-deck tickets at $75 a pop (cheaper from ticket brokers) are plentiful.
Not among the fan bases, where UK fans who believe their team's upset chances are few and far between, or U of L fans, who know there's little to be gained by beating Kentucky, but plenty to be lost if the performance against the Wildcats doesn't meet the program's lofty expectations.
The truth is, the rivalry is in a transition year, just like the programs.
UK has a new coach with a highly rated recruiting class coming in, and is trying to make the most of this season. First-year coach Mark Stoops meets the challenge of No. 7 Louisville head on, acknowledging the magnitude of the rivalry game. But he quickly added, "We have other big games."
U of L is in its only season in the American Athletic Conference, playing a made-for-TV schedule -- if the TV you're talking about is late-night infomercials. Cardinals coach Charlie Strong is spending all season trying to keep his team focused not on the sham, but on the wow.
Saturday in Commonwealth Stadium, in many ways, the Cardinals aren't playing so much against Kentucky, but against the SEC heavyweights UK will play in the coming weeks. Though, let's face it, such comparisons are foolish, and probably aren't worth the debates they will spark.
Next year, the game settles into a new place on the schedule, the last game of the season, where perhaps it will be allowed to mature, though even that is in question.
U of L athletic director Tom Jurich has committed to playing the game in perpetuity. UK athletic director Mitch Barnhart will play it as long as the SEC does not expand to a nine-game schedule. Next season, the teams will play in the final game of the season.
The move was requested by both the ACC and SEC, along with rivalry games between South Carolina and Clemson, Florida and Florida State, Georgia and Georgia Tech. All three of those SEC programs have said on the record that they will continue playing the rivalry game even if the conference schedule expands.
Barnhart says only that he'll do what's best for his program.
All of that, however, is in the future. There's no point crossing that bridge until it's truly about to be burned.
For now, we have this game. Most UK fans believe U of L is overrated. They cite close calls against mediocre competition last season, even the Cardinals' two losses.
Unfortunately for UK, the Wildcats won't get to play U of L's team from last November. The program turned a corner of some kind when Teddy Bridgewater, with a sprained ankle and broken wrist, came in to lead a comeback victory at Rutgers that propelled the Cardinals to the Sugar Bowl.
All that's happened since then is that U of L has turned back handily all three teams to come into its path -- including a University of Florida team that was ranked third in the nation. Some say Florida was distracted. It turns out, maybe Florida wasn't that good.
Regardless, Teddy Bridgewater is. Nobody is seriously entertaining the notion that Bridgewater will be ineffective against the Wildcats. He's accurate, mobile in the pocket, and possesses a tremendous understanding of his team's offense and, increasingly, opposing defenses.
For UK, the question begins with whether the Wildcats can move the ball against U of L. If they can, possibilities begin to open up. You look for turnovers, special teams gaffes, anything to give your team an opening.
The Wildcats will utilize two quarterbacks. U of L coaches say the have two packages, one for each QB. There's a reason teams don't regularly platoon quarterbacks. In some ways, you're telegraphing your intentions when you do it. Strong said UK presents challenges, but the biggest challenge is for his players to be mentally right.
"It's all about us," he said.
UK must play an extraordinary game to pull the upset.
U of L must play its normal game with few mistakes to emerge with a big lead.
The Cardinals are looking to work out the kinks in their running game. Michael Dyer, transfer from Auburn, has been bumped up to No. 2 on the depth chart, and offensive coordinator Shawn Watson says he'll begin to give two backs most of the reps.
Defensively, U of L has not been tested this season. They've yet to walk onto the field without a lead. Kentucky's spread "Air Raid" attack will require more one-on-one tackling, something Cardinals' defensive coordinator Vance Bedford spent the entire offseason stressing.
UK needs to figure out a way to get pressure on Bridgewater, because it stands little chance of covering the U of L wideouts if he has time to survey the field and make a play.
If the Wildcats can have some offensive success early, maybe they can apply pressure to the Cardinals. Bridgewater, whose slogan this season is #GUMP (Great Under Major Pressure) seems to be locked in.
It's the biggest football day in the state. As long as the game is played, it always will be. Statewide media will be out in force. But it's a bit different this season. For once, both programs seem to have bigger things to worry about. Fans have talked about it all week, but they're not exactly climbing all over each other to get into the game.
It's a transition year. But you never know. Maybe this season, what happens between the lines before an ESPN audience awaiting the Alabama-Texas A&M blockbuster will yet give the Bluegrass a memorable moment.
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