Here we go, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls. We are heading for yet another annual clash of the Kentucky Wildcats and Louisville Cardinals in football, a rivalry that Kentucky has dominated lately, winning three straight against their bitter rivals in the River City.
Saturday's game, like most in the series, is a sellout, and features new head coaches for both teams, Charlie Strong of Louisville and Joker Phillips of Kentucky, laying it on the line in one of, if not the, biggest game of the season for either team. Win this one, and momentum can get you halfway to a bowl game. Lose, and the disappointment can make for a very long season.
One of the things I have had mixed emotions about is the fact that this game is often played as the very first game of the season. This is an extreme rarity in college football -- most bitter rivals wait until later in the season to play the game. You almost always see better football later after the teams have had time to work out some of the early bugs.
In some ways, though, the early start is more of a feature than a bug. Interest is always extremely high, and the sports-starved communities of Louisville and Lexington, having suffered through a long summer mostly without team sports to cheer about, are always ready to explode on the college sports scene. Both teams have a perfect or near-perfect record when they meet every year, and this leads to high interest and high drama, if not the greatest display of team football.
Be that as it may, Saturday brings with it the hopes and dreams of both fan bases, and no matter how strong or how weak the other team looks, this game is usually competitive and the unexpected can happen -- like in 2007 when Stevie got loose. Go ahead, click the link and watch the video -- you know you can't resist. Call your boss over to enjoy it with you, he'll understand. Unless, of course, he happens to be a Cardinal fan.
This series is full of everything a college football fan, even casual fans, could possibly want -- intense, bitter rivalry, mutual loathing from fans, strong media hype, the beginning of a new college sports season, a chance to dress out in your team colors when it really means something -- a heaping red and blue helping of everything a college sports fan could possibly want.
This year, like last year, Kentucky will be favored in the game, even though it will be played on enemy turf. The Cardinal fans are predictably lowering expectations for Saturday's contest:
Strong has inherited a group that only Lee Corso could envy. No one is expecting him to win big right away. The excitement, rather, is the product of both the promise of future victories and the immediate privilege to watch a team that appears competent and enthusiastic.
If the Cards come up short this weekend, for once, it's not the end of the world. If Strong beats Kentucky, he's God...or at least Zack Morris.
To be fair to the Cardinal fans, UK fans would likely be doing the same thing were the roles reversed, and they often have been. Kentucky suffered through a stretch between 1999 and 2008 where the Cardinals were favored in every single game, and won all but three of them.
The Kentucky football team is going into this game with a clear understanding of the goal:
The UK players made it clear, however, that the main task at hand is bringing that Governor's Cup back to the Nutter Training Facility. It would also mark the first time the Wildcats have won four straight in the modern series. U of L won all four games of theera from 2003-06.
So how is new head coach Joker Phillips handling all this? Well, in his show which aired last night from Louisville, Phillips assured everyone that he doesn't have the jitters about this game:
"Maybe Saturday morning I'll be hugging a toilet somewhere," Phillips said. "I don't know. I haven't done that in a long time, since I was a player at one time. But I don't know. It's one of those deals where I've been as relaxed as I've ever been, but Saturday, who knows?"
Phillips went on to say that he saw the offensive line as the strength of this football team, despite major losses from last year's version. If true, that's really good news.
The not-so-good news is that Phillips unveiled a defensive starting lineup that features a walk-on at defensive tackle. I don't mean to disrespect Luke McDermott, but from the stands, one has to think that something is not altogether good when a walk-on beats out a scholarship player for a starting spot. Maybe McDermott is just that good, but that is a situation that bears watching.
But continuing with Phillips, Rick Bozich says that it is Phillips, not Strong, who most needs a win on Saturday:
Phillips needs to beat Strong more than Strong needs to beat Phillips, at least this year. Strong has the more daunting long-term task. Phillips has the more immediate task. His clock started before Rich Brooks cleaned out his office.
Unfortunately for Joker Phillips, I think Bozich is right. However, it is a good thing for this Kentucky program that expectations are so high now that coaches feel pressure to perform. For many years, Kentucky football was more of an afterthought than an actual spectator sport. Now, it has risen to the level where many fans actually care what happens to the football team. Phillips can either be a victim of that success, or surf the wave to even greater heights.
In the final analysis, this game will be a watershed moment for both coaches, and define their start, if not their legacy, at their respective programs. If Kentucky wins this game, it will be more or less expected given the level of talent that Strong has at the moment, and the fact that Kentucky has established a winning football culture in Kentucky. There are few, if any players remaining on Kentucky's team that remember what a losing season feels like.
Louisville, on the other hand, has few remaining players who remember their Orange bowl victory back in 2007. Most of the players can remember only one winning season at Louisville, and even though they may be hungry for one, getting to that point is much easier on paper than in practice.
So get ready for fall sports, Wildcat fans. There are lots of reasons to like the chances of this Kentucky team to have a good season, if not a great one. The schedule is somewhat favorable this year, Louisville is still down (although they will not stay there), and there is a pretty decent chance for the Joker Phillips era at Kentucky to get off with a bang. Recruiting has never been better, especially from the front porch of our chief rival.
There are lots of reasons to believe that this year just might be the one where Kentucky takes the next step. There are a lot of unknowns, but consistency has been the difference for Kentucky these last four years as far as talent level and overall execution is concerned. The Wildcats are rarely flashy and never overwhelm anyone with their talent, but the find ways to get victories with good, steady football. And that is a good thing.