The Kentucky-Louisville football rivalry lacks the significance of Alabama-Auburn, the glamour of USC-Oregon and the tradition of Ohio State-Michigan.
Yet in the 18 years since UK and U of L renewed their football rivalry, our state’s marquee pigskin game has proven unpredictable, at times dramatic and endearingly zany.
With the 19th modern renewal of the battle for the Governor’s Cup on Sunday, let’s examine what has given the U of L-UK football series its singular personality.
1. Nobody knows — really
Many might see the fact that Kentucky is a 13-point underdog playing on the road Sunday in Louisville as a portent of doom. Given the track record of UK-U of L football, it might be the Cats are exactly where they want to be.
Roulette wheels are more predictable than Cats-Cards football. Those who follow such things (for entertainment purposes, I'm confident) can tell you that favorites are only 10-8 straight up in modern Kentucky-Louisville football.
Adding to the uncertainty, this is one series in which home-field "advantage" is not. Since 1994, home teams are 7-11 in the modern Governor's Cup.
For perspective, in the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry, the home team is 12-6 since 1994; home teams are 11-6-1 in Florida-Florida State; and they are 9-9 in Alabama-Auburn.
The defining statistic of the modern UK-U of L series is that the team that has rushed for the most yards has won the game 16 years in a row.
Not since Sept. 2, 1995 — the second game after the series renewed — has the team that won the rushing battle (UK 203-142) lost the game (U of L won 13-10).
The irony in the pre-eminence of the rushing stat is that the modern UK-U of L series has been defined by signature quarterback play.
A. 1998. On a piping hot afternoon that turned the brand spanking new Papa John's Cardinal Stadium into a (pizza) oven, Tim Couch was scorching. The UK star threw for 498 yards and a whopping seven touchdowns — in three quarters — to lead Kentucky to a 68-34 win.
B. 1999. Couch was playing for pay in Cleveland, but U of L star Chris Redman had one more shot at UK. The Male High School product ruined the first game in an expanded Commonwealth Stadium by throwing for 324 yards and five TDs in a 56-28 U of L win.
C. 2007. In the most hyped meeting (so far) in the UK-U of L modern series, Andre Woodson and Brian Brohm staged an epic quarterback duel. Brohm won the yardage battle (366-275) but Woodson threw for four TDs to the Louisville star's two. Woodson's final scoring toss — a 57-yard bomb to Steve Johnson with 28 seconds left that gave UK a 40-34 win over No. 9 U of L — is the most remembered play from all modern Kentucky-Louisville games.
On Sunday, a pair of sophomores, Maxwell Smith (UK) and Teddy Bridgewater (who was a U of L hero in last year's game after coming off the bench), make their first starts in the Governor's Cup.
They have a high bar to clear.
3. Going first is good
From 1994-2006 — other than in 2001, when U of L played New Mexico State before it faced UK — the Governor's Cup game opened the season for both teams. Then in 2007, at the insistence of then-Kentucky coach Rich Brooks, UK moved the game to later in the season when it is in Lexington.
Not playing the game first has hardly ruined the rivalry; still, the UK-U of L football game is better when it is first.
As the opener, UK-U of L gets a stronger national TV platform. Starting in 2006, when the game has been played first it has been on the main ESPN three times (2006, '08 and this year) and on ABC once (2010).
When it has been played either as the second game (2009) or the third (2007 and '11), it has been televised by ESPN Classic (2007) and ESPNU (2009 and '11).
I haven't done a study, but I think there is more summertime football chatter in the commonwealth when UK-U of L opens the season.
Even the weather — heat wave (1998), lightning delay (2000), thunderstorm stoppage (2003) — seems more interesting when the game is played first. Will there be a post-hurricane monsoon in 2012?
When the Cats and Cards tee it up Sunday, odds are we will see something we're not expecting. Our basketball state has produced a college football rivalry with a quirky spiciness all its own.