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For whom the bell tolls


That will be decided on the artificial Papa John's Cardinal Stadium on Sunday.

At Card Chronicle, Mike has an extensive examination of the consequences of this Governor's Cup game from the perspective of the Cardinals, and declares:

I think it would be thoughtless to go any further without acknowledging that the enormity of what takes place on Sunday is not limited to one side. Kentucky is looking to prove that its program has turned a corner, its looking to build on its recent successes in the recruiting game, and its looking to pick up a valuable non-conference win before returning to the savage reality of life in the SEC. A post of equal length devoted entirely to the gargantuan ramifications this game has for the Wildcats would certainly be warranted. [Emphasis mine]

I think Mike is exactly right, "equal length" requirement aside.  Kentucky has enjoyed two seasons of good football in which it has returned from the depths of awful futility.  But let's not make the mistake of thinking that these two seasons represent a turnaround.  Just as large ocean vessels require lots of time to make a turn, it takes more than two seasons for the a football program who was listing badly and on fire to declare itself righted and back on course.

Mike has discussed what this year's Governor's Cup means to the Cardinal program at length, but it means a lot to Kentucky as well.  With the expectations in the Bluegrass not really changing this year despite the loss of Kentucky's offense, the coaching staff has a tremendous amount of credibility invested in this team.  Brooks and Phillips have maintained that Kentucky's talent is radically improved from the days when they took over the reigns, and when you establish that as a fact, you establish higher expectations year to year.  So unlike previous years when we were just happy to get to .500, two years of success and continued lauding of the program's improvement have created a higher level of expectations at Kentucky.

Another reason the Governor's Cup matters to the Big Blue Faithful is that Louisville is regarded nationally as a good football program, and last year's season was just a disappointment, not a harbinger of a return to the 1970's.  But the SEC is where UK lives, and the standard for football here is arguably higher than anywhere else.  Notwithstanding the fact that the Big East has enjoyed good success recently against the SEC (just ask Tommy Tuberville about that USF team last year), the feeling around the league is that with the possible exception of West Virginia, the Big East gets very little respect.  And if you can't beat a Big East team who isn't West Virgina, how can you expect to win in the SEC?

Why is respect in the SEC important?  Well, for one thing, we recruit mostly in the Southeast.  Competing for the better recruits requires winning programs, and three winning seasons out of nine does not meet that definition.  But it goes even deeper than that -- most SEC schools, even pitched rivals like Auburn and Alabama have respect for the football the other team plays.  They know they are going against quality, and they never mark that game down as a win.

Kentucky, on the other hand, has always been chalked up as a victory, only slightly tougher than the cannon fodder the SEC is so roundly criticized for scheduling.  Yes, the occasional upset would happen, but only the weakest SEC teams considered Kentucky a tough opponent year over year.  You would have though that would have changed after UK defeated Georgia in 2006 and LSU in 2007, but you would be wrong.  The hubris of the top SEC powers (somewhat deservedly) knows no bounds, and they simply shrugged and chalked it up to lightning in a bottle.  We have no right to complain about that perception -- we have done exactly the same thing to Florida, among others, in basketball.

Unlike Louisville, this Governor's Cup has much milder ramifications for the Kentucky coaching staff unless it is ugly and one-sided Louisville's way, like in 2006.  If that happens, Brooks & Co. will be called to account after announcing in public that this is the best Wildcat defensive squad in his tenure.  But make no mistake -- a loss to Louisville will put pressure on the staff, because winnable games this year are tough to find in the SEC portion of UK's schedule.  If Kentucky is to get to a bowl game, a win over Louisville would seem to be almost irreplaceable.  Without the victory over Louisville last year, it is doubtful we would have been picked for a bowl at all.

So while we may not see the kind of radical anger, frustration and calls for coaching changes that Louisville will experience with a loss, we will have to listen to "Back to Earth, Kentucky.  You guys were just Woodson, Tamme, Johnson, Little, and Burton."  Nobody in the Big Blue Nation wants to go back there.

Who needs this game more?  Individually speaking, Kragthorpe by a vast margin.  A loss at home to Kentucky would cause an uprising, and peasants with pitchforks to hit the streets of the River City.  That will not happen in Lexington in the case of a Kentucky loss, but it will make a third straight trip to a bowl very difficult if not impossible.  No post-season this year will make recruiting harder, as Kentucky's foes will say "See?  Same old Kentucky.  Back to the basement."  Louisville has no such problem, as they can point to over a decade of success and call it "rebuilding."  Plus, Louisville's road to the post season is much easier than UK's, so a loss in this game hurts their bowl chances less.

In the final analysis, this is a huge game for both teams, but for different reasons.  For Kentucky, it is about establishing a winning tradition, something that Louisville already enjoys.  For the Cardinals, it is about a restive fan base needing very little provocation to devolve into rebellion against the coaching staff and acrimonious self-immolation, with the consequent negative effect on the team's chances.