Mark Story asks the question today, "Who needs this game more, Joker Phillips or Charlie Strong?" The answer is both obvious and not a little unfortunate -- Joker Phillips.
Story goes into the reasons, but they are what you'd expect -- Joker came in during a recent uptick in the program, he's been here a while and so his honeymoon was predictably short, the whole "coach in waiting" thing didn't do him any favors, etc. He's right about all that, of course, but that's just the way the cookie crumbles. Unless Phillips can get the team to 7 or 8 wins somehow this year, he'll be criticized to some degree -- all that's really variable is how much criticism he'll receive.
Strong, of course, came in at a program low for Louisville and gets the traditional honeymoon period for a guy who replaces a coach that was universally loathed in a results sense. Strong took Louisville to their first bowl in a while last year, so he has accumulated goodwill for accomplishing something that Phillips is expected to accomplish every year.
My question, though, is who needs this game more as a program? That answer is a little different. Even though Strong will surely survive a loss to Kentucky on Saturday with just a bit of fan frustration, Louisville's program will start looking quite futile to recruits, particularly in the state of Kentucky, after losing five in a row to a mediocre SEC team. Quite a difference from only 5.5 years ago when Louisville came home with the BCS Orange Bowl trophy to put in their case to go with four straight victories over the Wildcats.
At this point, Louisville is definitely improving from the Kragthorpe years, but the improvements have been incremental at best, and will continue to be until Strong's recruiting takes hold. Louisville won enough games against the weaker teams in the Big East last year to make it to a bowl despite dropping the UK decision, and were at least competitive in most of their games. The problem is, the Big East looks little stronger this year than last with only 2 teams currently ranked in either poll.
Imagine, however, if Louisville had to face the murderer's row of #16 Florida, #3 LSU and #11 South Carolina as Kentucky is currently slated to face, along with #25 Mississippi St. later on in the year. The Cardinals have rarely, if ever seen that level of competition, or has an idea of the toll it takes on a team.
So Louisville really, really needs this one badly as a program, even though beating Kentucky at its current level of performance would not bring many plaudits from either conference mates or other leagues. But be that as it may, five years in a row becomes something people start to describe as somewhat uncompetitive, if not outright domination. Unfortunately for Louisville, continuing losses in the rivalry will even start affecting their newfound Florida recruiting pool.
This isn't to suggest the game doesn't mean something to Kentucky, it surely does. It's looking more and more like Kentucky needs every single non-conference game this year to have any shot at getting to any bowl invitation, let alone a good one. They certainly can't afford to drop any games where they are the actual favorites.
Because Louisville lost the Florida International game, this game is huge to them as well in terms of their season. While the Big East is by no means as strong as the SEC, Louisville's schedule includes 4 more home games, all of which they'll need to win, plus one on the road. That may not be as tough as the SEC, but it's plenty tough enough.
So here's how all this breaks down:
- Bigger for Joker than Strong;
- Bigger for Louisville in terms of the program;
- Big for both in terms of the season.
So what do you think? Is this bigger for Louisville, or Kentucky, all things considered?