Mark Story: A new subject for UK and U of L fans to argue about

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistAugust 16, 2014 

In this state, you can start a Kentucky vs. Louisville sports argument over anything, of course. Yet one topic there's never been much reason to debate is who plays the better football schedule, UK or U of L?

Now, with U of L moving into the Atlantic Coast Conference, we have arrived at the point where Cats backers and Cards followers have reason to at least discuss the relative merits of each school's football slate.

There's zero question who has played the stronger schedule in the past. So far in the 21st century, Kentucky of the SEC has played 56 games against teams ranked in The Associated Press Top 25 (UK is 4-52).

Louisville, while moving through Conference-USA, the Big East and the American Athletic Conference so far in the 2000s, has played only 24 times against ranked foes (going 14-10) this century — and seven were in bowl games.

Yet in 2014, the "high end" of the UK and U of L schedules look surprisingly similar.

According to the initial coaches' poll for this season, there are seven Southeastern Conference schools that will start the year ranked in the Top 25. Yet UK only has to play three of them — No. 9 South Carolina, No. 12 Georgia and No. 13 LSU.

Louisville is also slated to face three teams that will begin 2014 in the coaches' Top 25 — No. 1 Florida State, No. 16 Clemson and No. 17 Notre Dame (though the alleged academic fraud scandal in South Bend may weaken the Fighting Irish roster).

If Louisville were to end 2014 having played more Top 25 teams than Kentucky, it would be a historically rare occurrence.

Since 1980, UK has played more ranked teams than U of L in every season but three. In both 1993 and 2006, the Cats and Cards each played four rated foes.

The only time Louisville has played more games vs. the AP Top 25 than Kentucky in a season was 1991, when U of L played three (lost to No. 11 Tennessee, No. 19 Ohio State and No. 1 Florida State) to UK's two (lost to No. 5 Florida and No. 10 Tennessee).

What makes UK's overall schedule so formidable is how strong the middle and the bottom of the Wildcats' slate looks to be, especially in comparison to U of L's.

Louisville will play six teams in 2014 whose ranking in the final 2013 RPI (yes, they have that in football, too) was worse than 90 — Wake Forest (No. 94), North Carolina State (99), UK (104), Virginia (110), Florida International (145) and Murray State (182).

Kentucky plays only one such team — Tennessee-Martin (173).

Conversely, U of L will face four foes who finished last season in the top 50 of the RPI — but the Wildcats will play seven.

The 2013 season-ending RPI rankings show the step up in competition Louisville will face in 2014 compared to its year of purgatory in The American last season. Last year, the average ranking for all of U of L's 2013 foes was 83.67. It was a putrid 77.4 for league opponents in the American — and that was with Central Florida finishing 10th in the RPI.

The 12 teams Louisville will face in 2014, however, had an average standing in RPI at last season's end of 76.1. For the eight ACC foes U of L will play, the average ranking was 57.4.

While better, Louisville's 2014 schedule strength almost certainly will not be close to the overall level of Kentucky's. The average RPI rating at the end of 2013 for the 12 teams Kentucky will face in 2014 was 51.25. For the eight SEC foes UK will play, the average ranking was 33.

(A couple of disclaimers. Obviously, where teams were rated at the end of last season does not necessarily foretell what their level of strength will be in 2014.

It seems fair to note the average rating of U of L's 2014 foes is diminished by UK's low standing (104 at realtimerpi.com) for last year, while the ratings of UK's foes is enhanced by the high RPI ranking (15th) with which Louisville finished 2013).

Bottom line: While Kentucky will again play the "stronger" football slate in 2014, there's a case to be made that Louisville will play the "better" schedule.

At least in 2014, playing in the ACC is giving U of L a chance to test itself against a manageable number of projected elite teams without having to face the suffocating depth of strong teams that has made it so difficult for UK football to rise in the SEC.

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

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