Mark Story: The UK-UofL football rivalry as we've always known it is over

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistSeptember 16, 2013 

By the time Mark Stoops gets his next chance to pry the Governor's Cup from the grip of Charlie Strong, the modern Kentucky-Louisville football rivalry as we have always known it will be no more.

After two decades as a fixture on the early part of the schedule, the next time the Cats and Cards tee it up on the football field will be in the chill of late November. The 21st modern meeting between UK and U of L will come Nov. 29, 2014, a whopping 441 days after Louisville's 27-13 victory Saturday in Commonwealth Stadium.

For football fans in the commonwealth, this is going to be a massive change.

When the UK-U of L series was relaunched in 1994, the game was placed as the season opener to 1.) gin up football conversation during the summer in a basketball-obsessed state; 2.) claim national attention by playing at a time when other, more-established rivals were not.

Even after Rich Brooks and Kentucky undermined the original rationale by moving UK home games in the Governor's Cup rivalry to the second or third week starting in 2007, an early-season Cats-Cards matchup has still been the focus of much of the commonwealth's summer sports discussion.

Now that the SEC and ACC have shifted our state's marquee football contest to the regular-season finale, it will be fascinating to see what impact that has on the level of pigskin talk in Kentucky each summer.

Tom Leach, the UK football play-by-play man, said the optimum outcome for football in Kentucky is for Strong to keep Louisville's program at a high level and for Stoops to get UK there, too.

"Hopefully, where this is headed is that both coaches have their programs at a point where people's general enthusiasm about football leads to a lot of summer conversation that does not have to be based on one game," Leach said.

To me, part of the appeal of the early-season UK-U of L football series has been the mystery, of not knowing for sure what either team has. Clearly, with the teams playing as the final game, that is over.

In replacing mystery, "what you are hoping for is that both teams have something big at stake," said Paul Rogers, the Louisville radio play-by-play announcer.

Looking at Kentucky's 2014 schedule, it's possible the Cats will enter the game with Louisville needing a victory for bowl eligibility.

Once it officially joins the ACC next season, the U of L schedule will be dramatically upgraded. In '14, the Cardinals have home games with Florida State and Miami and road meetings with Clemson and Notre Dame. It's not impossible that U of L, too, could have a ton on the line next season in terms of its post-season hopes when Kentucky visits.

Scheduling the Cats-Cards contest annually as the opener was also done originally, in part, to ensure both the Blue and the Red fan bases had high hopes at the time the game was played each year. Obviously, a risk to having UK-U of L late is what could happen if either one or both teams have endured horrid years.

"This is a unique state in a lot of ways, and it's a state where basketball, by late November, is sucking up a lot of oxygen," Rogers said. "Does that overshadow the (UK-U of L) football game if one or both teams are not strong? I think it could. (In that case) you'll have to count on the fans keeping the rivalry strong."

Going forward, Louisville and Kentucky will be playing on college football's traditional "rivalry weekend" opposite such heavyweight matchups as Florida-Florida State, Ohio State-Michigan and Alabama-Auburn.

As a series, UK-U of L could be elevated by sharing this big stage. It could also be completely overshadowed outside the commonwealth.

Leach said he does not believe the date on the calendar when Kentucky and Louisville play is what will determine the level of national interest in the game.

"How good the teams and the players are who are playing in the game (determines that)," he said. "If Tim Couch and Chris Redman are playing quarterback, people (outside Kentucky) will watch. If you don't have good players and good teams, no one outside Kentucky is going to care. And I think that's true on Labor Day weekend or Thanksgiving weekend."

Rogers is not so sure playing late is good for the national visibility of the Governor's Cup rivalry.

"You know, Georgia-Georgia Tech is a great, traditional rivalry," Rogers said of another last-week-of-the-season matchup. "But I don't think it's had much of a national profile recently."

What is certain is that, in 2014, the UK-U of L rivalry will boldly go where it has never gone before. For sports fans in Kentucky, it's going to be a very different world.

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

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