John Clay: Cats-Cards 20 years ago looked little like today

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistSeptember 11, 2013 

Twenty years ago, at the rebirth of the Kentucky-Louisville football series, let's say you owned a crystal ball.

Let's say you gazed into that crystal ball. Would you have seen the following?

Louisville enters this year's renewal ranked seventh in the nation, the second time in series history U of L has entered the game ranked in the top 10.

Kentucky has yet to enter as a ranked team.Louisville boasts a quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater currently No. 1 in the HeismanPundit.com straw poll of Heisman Trophy voters.

Louisville is fresh off a 2012 season in which the Cardinals beat Florida in the Sugar Bowl.

That is the same Florida, by the way, UK last beat in 1986.

And last but not least, would you have seen this?

Given Kentucky football's current ticket situation — a Wednesday afternoon check of Ticketmaster showed seats (all $81) still available — it is likely Cardinals red will be plentiful in Commonwealth Stadium come Saturday.

Let's be clear: We don't doubt Mark Stoops' ability to turn Kentucky's football fortunes around. We do know he has much ground to make up — even in the home state.

In fact, a football series that began with the cards stacked in Kentucky's favor has made a sharp turn in Louisville's direction.

When the series was revived in 1994, former UK athletics director C.M. Newton and Louisville athletics director Bill Olsen negotiated a deal stipulating the game be played in Lexington until U of L built a football stadium of comparable seating capacity.

Then Papa John's Cardinal Stadium opened in 1998. It has continued as a home-and-home series since. UK expanded its home from 58,000 to 67,000 seats in 1999. Louisville expanded its home from 42,000 to 55,000 in 2010.

When the series was revived, Louisville football was an independent. It joined Conference-USA in 1996, a move that caused former coach Howard Schnellenberger to huff off to Oklahoma. In 2005, the Cards then jumped to the BCS-worthy Big East.

Now, after this one season in the American Athletic Conference, U of L becomes a full-fledged member of the ACC in 2014.

So if the first four games played at Commonwealth marked Phase I of the series, Saturday's game marks the end of Phase II. The series is no longer an outlier among in-state college football rivalries, played early in the season before conference play, giving it an identity all its own.

SEC and ACC officials conspired, however, to move the game to season's end, starting in 2014. There, UK-U of L will join fellow SEC-ACC rivalry games Clemson-South Carolina, Florida-Florida State and Georgia-Georgia Tech.

The league bragging rights will give the matchup a different dynamic. No longer is Louisville a member of a second-class conference undeserving of even a mention in the same breath with the mighty SEC.

To be sure, the SEC remains the country's best football conference, but it would be foolish to dismiss the ACC given what's happened of late.

After all, Clemson beat LSU in last season's Chick-fil-A Bowl, then beat Georgia in this year's season opener. Just last Saturday, Miami upset Florida.

And before you point out that Florida beat Florida State last season, remember U of L shocked the Gators in New Orleans.

Now let's go back to that crystal ball.

If you had peered into it 20 years ago, would you have seen Louisville's home opener against Ohio drawing 55,332 with Kentucky's home opener with Miami (Ohio) just 54,846?

Would you have seen the new Kentucky head coach appealing to Big Blue fans to buy tickets for UK-U of L in his home stadium?

"Our fans have not disappointed us yet," Stoops said Monday. "So sure, I'll throw out a challenge to get them there. We need them there."

But then, 20 years ago, would your crystal ball have shown this?

Louisville is a 12.5-point favorite to run the modern series record to U of L 12, Kentucky 8.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com.

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