Mark Story: Why fears of the impending demise of UK-U of L football series are exaggerated

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistAugust 1, 2013 

With under a minute left to play, Kentucky's Steve Johnson scored the go-ahead touchdown on a 57-yard pass play from Andre Woodson in the Cats 40-34 win in Commonwealth Stadium in 2007.

After last week's annual Governor's Cup football luncheon, there was much media hand wringing about the future of the Kentucky-Louisville football series.

Conventional wisdom in the commonwealth is that the Cats-Cards football rivalry may well end if the Southeastern Conference, as many expect, soon moves from an eight- to a nine-game conference schedule each season. The feeling is that playing nine SEC games each year will cause UK — out of a fear of being "over-scheduled" — to pull the plug on playing U of L.

The fretting over the future of Cats-Cards football is being overplayed. As we prepare this season for the 20th modern battle for the Governor's Cup, there are substantial reasons to think the Cats-Cards series is not going to end.

Reason one. It is not written in stone that the SEC is going to nine league football games a year.

Many believe that once the SEC Network is up and running in 2014 that ESPN — which will own and run the SEC-centric cable sports channel — will demand nine league football contests to improve the quality of the available programming inventory.

That may be true, but there is a counter-argument. If you add an additional intra-conference SEC football game for each school each year, you are likely reducing the total number of college football games involving Southeastern Conference teams available to be broadcast on ESPN platforms.

You are removing for all 14 SEC teams one week of non-conference games — that's 14 contests — and replacing it with seven league matchups.

Is the SEC Network better off with the enhanced quality that would result from more SEC-on-SEC games or is it best served with the additional programming that would come from more games involving one league team?

Reason two. The impact of the coming college football playoff.

Even if the SEC does eventually go to nine league contests, there is a chance the league will also mandate that all its members play at least one non-league contest each season against another school from one of the other major conferences — the Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and the ACC (which U of L joins in 2014).

Starting next year, a selection committee will choose the teams that get to compete for the national title. In college basketball, a team's strength of schedule is a big factor in who gets into the NCAA Tournament.

As SEC men's hoops coaches were lectured this off-season by league commissioner Mike Slive, the strength of schedules played by teams within the conference has a big impact on the power rankings of other league teams.

Presumably, similar forces will be at work in football scheduling.

Nick Saban wants all teams in the five major conferences to play 10 games annually against other schools from the big five to make it easier for the football playoff selection committee to evaluate.

Such a framework could also ensure the continuation of existing SEC-ACC rivalries such as Florida-Florida State, Georgia-Georgia Tech, South Carolina-Clemson and, yes, Kentucky-Louisville.

Reason three. Playing Louisville is objectively in UK's self-interest.

When the intrastate football series was relaunched in 1994, U of L gained more from it than UK did.

The series helped Louisville get Papa John's Cardinal Stadium built. U of L's success against Kentucky (the Cards lead the modern rivalry 11-8) boosted the in-state perception of the Cardinals program.

Yet UK has always benefited from the Governor's Cup series, too.

A game with U of L has been UK's best-attended home contest in six of 11 seasons in which the Cards visited Lexington since the rivalry resumption in 1994.

Since Commonwealth Stadium was expanded in 1999, Kentucky-Louisville has drawn more than 70,000 fans in Lexington every year but once — when it drew 68,170 in 2011.

On the field, Kentucky is 4-6 against Louisville in its last 10 meetings. Compare that to UK's record over the same time span against its erstwhile SEC East "rivals:" The Cats are 0-10 against Florida, 1-9 against both Tennessee and South Carolina and 2-8 vs. Georgia.

Playing Louisville has given UK an annual football game that moves the needle with its fan base that the Cats win with at least some regularity.

All of which is why the fears of the impending demise of the Cats-Cards football series seem exaggerated.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com.

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