If you want to look at how the seasons of the Kentucky Wildcats and the Louisville Cardinals have played out over the last few years, the Governor's Cup has been a pretty good indication.
Kentucky has started out strong against the Cardinals recently but collapsed down the stretch which has been the perfect microcosm of their seasons. As for Louisville, we have watched them grow and the talent gap between them and the Wildcats has grown as well to the point that the Vegas spread for this game opened at around 26 points.
Even though the Governor's Cups games have been entertaining, the Cardinals have won five games in a row. This is the first meeting that both teams have been headed to a bowl since 2010, which is the last time Kentucky won. That season marked the end of the five-year bowl streak Kentucky had and it was the first season of Louisville's current seven-year bowl streak.
This game has a ton of intrigue and the potential to be a great match up. Let's stop talking about it and let's meet the Cardinals.
Lamar Jackson is probably the best runner in the country and he fully deserves to win the Heisman Trophy in a couple of weeks. He is without a doubt, the biggest single offensive threat the Wildcats have faced all season.
Jackson has been virtually unstoppable on the ground with 1,367 yards and 19 touchdowns. He has rushed for over 100 yards in seven games this year. He has also made some pretty good defenses look ridiculous. He shredded FSU for 199 yards and 4TDs. He also had 185 yards and 3 TD against Boston College. For the season, Jackson has averaged 6.5 yards a carry. Only Houston has been able to shut Jackson down, holding him to 33 yards on 25 carries.
Jackson has also improved as a passer and can definitely hurt you with his arm as well. He has completed 57.1% of his passes for 3,109 yards and has 28 TDs against just 6 INTS. The one Achilles heel of Jackson's game is his accuracy. He passed for 411 yards against Syracuse but he completed just 20 of 39 passes. In his past three games, Jackson has completed just 53.4% of his passes for 587 yards. He has still rushed for 371 yards in that span so even when he is not passing very well, he is still extremely dangerous.
Brandon Radcliff is a back that has hurt Kentucky in the past and he has 787 yards rushing and 6 TDS on the season and averages 6.8 yards a carry. Radcliff has taken a backseat to Jackson as the season has progressed, however. After starting the season on fire, Radcliff has topped 100 yards just once in the last seven games and that was a 141 yard, 3 TD effort against Wake Forest. If you take that game out of the equation, Radcliff has 59 carries for 219 yards and zero touchdowns in those six games and a 3.71 yard per carry average.
Jeremy Smith is another back that can take over a game and punish the defense. As the third option, he has 357 yards and 7 TDs for a 7.1 yard per carry average. Smith is also a pretty good receiving threat out of the backfield and averages 12.6 yards on 18 catches. Malik Williams averages 7.6 yards for his 19 carries on the season.
James Quick is Jackson's favorite target but he is still a bit inconsistent and tends to disappear in some games. For the season, Quick has 38 catches for 621 yards and 6TDs. In his last two games, Quick has just 3 catches for 20 yards. That in itself is not a big concern for Louisville as Jackson spreads the ball around well and has a few big targets. 6'4 Senior Jamari Staples has 35 catches for 593 yards and 2 TDs. Staples averages 16.9 yards a catch.
6'5 TE Cole Hikutini has really emerged this season for the Cardinals and is a big clutch target for Jackson on key downs and in the red zone. He leads the team with 42 receptions and has 556 yards and 7 TDs. 6'4 Sophomore Jaylen Smith has become the deep threat for the Cardinals, averaging 21.4 yards per reception and he has 6 TDs. Former QB Reggie Bonnafon also has 4 TDs receiving among his 12 catches and is another deadly target.
As impressive as the offense is, the Cardinal defense is no slouch either. The Cardinals allow just 21.73 points a game and are as equally stingy at giving up yardage on both the ground and through the air. Opposing teams average just 99 yards a game and a paltry 2.7 yards a carry. Louisville gives up just 193 yards a game through the air, although 24 of the 28 touchdowns allowed have been passing.
DeAngelo Brown does a great job of disrupting havoc in the backfield with 3 sacks and 11 TFL. Drew Bailey is third on the team in tackles with 44 and he has 2 sacks and 8 TFL De'Asian Richardson has been solid at the LDE spot and is a solid run stopper.
LB James Hearns is a disruptive force as he leads the team with 8 sacks, 11 TFL and has forced 5 fumbles. Keith Kelsey leads the team with 74 tackles, 3.5 TFL a sack and he has forced 3 fumbles. Stacey Thomas has 64 tackles and is a solid run and pass defender. DeVonte Fields is relentless in getting to the QB and has 8 QBH and 5 sacks. The best thing for Kentucky about this front seven is that four of the players are seniors and this is the last time they will face them.
Just a sophomore, CB Jaire Alexander leads the Cardinals with 5 INTS and has broken up 7 other passes. This is a deep and a solid defensive backfield and their best player, Josh Harvey-Clemons has not played since 11/5 and is out with an injury. Zykiesis Cannon has really stepped up in his absence and leads the DB's with 63 tackles. Safety Chucky Williams has 3 picks and Trumaine Washington has an interception and has broken up 6 passes.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN?
To be honest, I have no idea how this game is going to play out. Before this week, I was of the mindset that Louisville was going to crush Kentucky. They still very well may but you have to wonder what the mindset of this team is, going from a possible berth in the College Football Playoff to now essentially playing for just a better bowl and pride.
Same goes for Kentucky. There is no pressure to make a bowl now and the reports of uninspired practice have me concerned. There is the pressure of the fanbase to beat Louisville and end this losing streak to them, but with the game at Louisville and the large point spread, most Kentucky fans realize that a loss is likely. But they want this game to be competitive.
In the end, it's still a rivalry game and anything can and probably will happen.
For Kentucky to win, they have to control the flow of the game and the time of possession. They have to have sustained drives and need to keep the Louisville offense off the field as much as possible. Look for a steady diet of Boom Williams and Benny Snell with enough long passes by Steven Johnson to keep the defense honest. I like the look the Wildcat offense can give this team, but the one thing this offense can not do is become one-dimensional and predictable as they tend to do near the goal line.
That said, I do think Kentucky can put up some points on the Cardinals. My concern is whether the Kentucky defense can stop Lamar Jackson and Louisville. My guess is that they probably can not. The defense has looked horrible against the run against very bad teams at times this season and I don't think the front seven can control Jackson like Houston did last week. For Kentucky to win, they need to bottle Jackson up and put constant pressure on him and make him beat you with his arm.
It's also important to keep in mind how much disdain Bobby Petrino has for Kentucky and the fact that a solid performance by Jackson will lock up the Heisman for him. I think that Jackson has the award locked up already, but I also think that Petrino is going to do what he can to ensure that Jackson has a huge game and embarrassing Kentucky in the process would be a bonus as well.
In the preseason, I gave my predictions for this Kentucky season and I have been accurate on every single game, sans the Southern Miss game. And I have to state that I have never felt confident or even hopeful about this game. Lamar Jackson is one reason. The fact that it is a road game is the other.
So, I have to go with my gut on this game and as much as it pains me to write this, I don't give Kentucky much of a chance. But as we have seen, you can spend millions of dollars of polling and predict an event and the predicted event may not happen. Let's hope that is the case here, but I'm going to call this one 49-28 for the bad guys.