At Mark Stoops’ weekly news conference Monday, the Kentucky football coach said there’s only one way for the UK-Louisville football series to cut through the rivalry clutter and become nationally prominent.
That’s for UK to elevate its success to the level No. 11 Louisville has attained.
“As we improve and get our program better — which we are doing — then (the UK-U of L rivalry) will have more national attention,” Stoops said.
A substantial step toward making UK-U of L nationally relevant would be for Kentucky to pull a major upset Saturday at high noon in Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium and reclaim the Governor’s Cup for the first time since 2010.
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This will sound surprising since Louisville is favored by 24 points, but the 2016 renewal of Cats-Cards “sets up” favorably for UK in several ways — but not so positively in one major area.
1.) The pressure is on the Cardinals.
Unlike the past two Kentucky-Louisville games — when the Cats needed a victory over the Cards to extend their 2014 and 2015 seasons — bowl-eligibility is already secure this season for UK (6-5, 4-4 SEC).
“I don’t know if it’s a relief, but it is certainly better,” Stoops said of entering the Louisville contest without the pressure of having to win to earn a bowl trip.
Louisville (9-2, 7-1 ACC), conversely, would appear to have big things riding on Saturday’s outcome.
With a U of L victory, the Cardinals would seem in strong position for a bid to the Orange Bowl. A Cardinals loss would, likely, sabotage Louisville’s major-bowl aspirations.
Since Lamar Jackson accounted for five touchdowns (four rushing, one passing) in Louisville’s 63-20 decimation of Florida State in week three, the sophomore from Pompano Beach, Fla., has seemed a secure Heisman Trophy front-runner .
However, the Heisman door may have cracked open for other candidates Thursday night after Jackson was sacked 11 times and looked relatively mortal in Louisville’s 36-10 defeat at Houston.
Against Kentucky, Heisman voters will be monitoring whether Jackson returns to his normally dazzling form.
2.) Louisville has the home-field disadvantage.
In the 22 prior games (since 1994) of the modern Cats-Cards football rivalry, the visitor has won 14 times.
UK’s record against U of L in Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium, 4-5, is much better than the Cats’ 4-9 mark vs. the Cards in Commonwealth Stadium.
3.) What UK is best at is exactly what an upset of U of L is likely to require.
UK should be well-suited to a game where job one is keeping the other team’s quarterback off the field.
Running behind one of the better offensive lines in Kentucky’s recent history, Boom Williams (1,072 yards) and Benny Snell (1,006) have given UK two 1,000-yards-plus rushers in the same season for the first time ever.
Louisville’s run defense has been stout, allowing only 99.2 yards a game, good for sixth in the country. So Kentucky eating clock and shortening the game won’t be easy.
4.) Why factors 1-3 in UK’s favor will likely not be enough.
Stopping dual-threat quarterbacks has long been the soft underbelly of UK defenses. Just two weeks ago, Kentucky was at the mercy of Tennessee’s Joshua Dobbs.
In a 49-36 UT victory, Dobbs ran for 147 yards and two TDs. He threw for 223 yards and three scores.
Dobbs is a good dual-threat QB.
Louisville’s Jackson is an exceptional one.
Consider: Out of 14 SEC teams, only Tennessee (50) has scored more than 45 TDs. By himself, Jackson has accounted for 47 touchdowns — 19 rushing, 28 passing.
It’s hard to imagine a Kentucky defense, long helpless against dual-threat QBs claiming the sweetest victory of the Mark Stoops era by stopping one of the most dynamic, dual-threat QBs in college football history.