Mark Story: A long-running UK-WKU rivalry is not in the cards

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistAugust 29, 2013 

If the football played in the 2013 season opener between Kentucky and Western Kentucky is one-tenth as entertaining as the pre-game smack talk, the game should be a humdinger.

Kentucky: Running back Raymond Sanders said Monday that UK has not forgotten how ebulliently the Hilltoppers celebrated on the field in Commonwealth Stadium last season after upsetting the Wildcats 32-31 in overtime.

"You can't go in anybody's house and just do what you want," Sanders said. "That's something we are not going to take lightly."

Western Kentucky: Linebacker Andrew Jackson told the Bowling Green media Wednesday night that WKU "is going to handle (UK) Saturday, so ya'll just be ready for that."

Getting warmed up, Jackson noted that Kentucky is running a new offense that employs four-receiver sets in a spread attack. No matter. "We're just going to hit 'em in the mouth and get it over with," he said.

Kentucky: In Lexington, veteran UK players are still smarting over what Jackson said on the sideline during Kentucky's listless 14-3 victory over the Hilltoppers in 2011.

"They supposed to be SEC," Jackson said then of the Cats.

Said UK offensive guard Kevin Mitchell: "I'm aware of that statement. I'm not going to comment on it. But he'll see."

Added Kentucky linebacker Avery Williamson: "We want to go out and let (WKU) know we are an SEC team. We're nothing to joke around with."

All this hot talk comes with a twist. With UK and Western on the verge of playing for only the fifth time ever, the Cats and Toppers players are talking like honest-to-goodness rivals.

Yet UK and WKU are not contracted to play each other again in football after this season.

When the 2014 Kentucky football schedule was announced, Western was not on it. UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart said in May the Hilltoppers are not on the Wildcats' 2015 slate, either.

In spite of the impending scheduling lapse, at the administrative level there does not appear to be any ill will between the two schools.

I talked to Western AD Todd Stewart about the future of the Hilltoppers-Wildcats football series twice since May. Both times Stewart made a point of thanking Barnhart and former UK football coach Rich Brooks for agreeing to play WKU five times in six years between 2008 and this season.

"We owe a huge thank you to Mitch and Rich Brooks," Stewart said last week. "There's no question, these games meant more to us than they did to UK, especially their willingness to play us twice in Nashville. We appreciate the opportunity they gave us."

For his part, Barnhart did not close the door on Kentucky playing Western again in the future, but said there is much uncertainty for UK until it's known whether the SEC will go from mandating eight to nine league football games each season.

In my view, the "problem," for those who like the Kentucky-Western series is that WKU's program is "outgrowing" its slot on the UK schedule.

Every UK football non-conference schedule from 2008 through the one recently announced for 2014 has followed the same formula: Along with U of L, Kentucky plays a team from the Football Championship Subdivision, a team from the Sun Belt Conference and one from the Mid-American Conference.

The last four seasons, WKU has filled the "Sun Belt" entry for UK.

Starting in 2014, Western moves from the SBC to Conference USA, a league generally considered a couple of rungs above the Sun Belt (and the MAC) on the college football ladder.

Meanwhile, given UK's complicated history with (and 1-4 all-time record against) Bobby Petrino, one surmises Kentucky will be more than content to wait out Bobby P.'s coaching tenure in Bowling Green before it even considers playing the Hilltoppers again.

With UK off the table for now, Western has announced future football games at Illinois (2014 and '17) and with Vanderbilt (2015 and '17 in Nashville; 2016 in Bowling Green).

As for further meetings with Kentucky, "I'd love to do that," Stewart said, "but Mitch and I talked at last year's game and, since it will be four years in a row and five out of six (that Kentucky and Western have played), we both agreed we'd take a breather."

Hopefully, the action at LP Field lives up to this year's white-hot pre-game talk — because I'd guess Saturday is the last Kentucky-Western Kentucky football matchup we're going to see for a while.

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

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