Oddsmakers feel pretty good about Kentucky's chances against Louisville. The Cats are a solid 131/2-point favorite for Saturday's noon kickoff at Commonwealth Stadium.
And judging from the vibe on Internet message boards and sports talk radio, Wildcats fans are feeling pretty good about things, as well. Even a portion of U of L fans, many of whom have had their fill of Coach Steve Kragthorpe, seem resigned to a Kentucky win.
But Kentucky Coach Rich Brooks said he knows better. He's been in enough rivalry games over the years to know that neither point spreads nor fan consensus mean much once the ball is kicked off.
Bill Curry's 1994 Kentucky team won only one game all season. But that one win came against a Louisville team that ended up finishing with a winning record. Ron Cooper was run out of Louisville but still managed to take two out of three from the Wildcats along the way. And Brooks' best team at Oregon, the 1994 Pac-10 champion that went to the Rose Bowl, narrowly escaped its regular-season finale, 17-13, against a 4-7 Oregon State team in the famous "Civil War" rivalry game.
"I've been upset and upset other people being heavy underdogs," Brooks said. "The point spreads, other than giving the fans and the public something to get happy about or grouse about, it really is meaningless, especially in a rival game. It doesn't have anything to do with what's going to happen at 12 o'clock at Commonwealth Stadium."
The UK players have tried to maintain focus despite hearing a lot of Cardinal-bashing after Louisville's less-than-impressive 30-10 win over Indiana State two weeks ago. UK senior running back Alfonso Smith, a Louisville native, heard plenty of it when he went home during the Cats' open date last weekend.
"People kept telling me over and over, 'Louisville's terrible,' even Louisville fans," Smith said. "But it went in one ear and out the other. People come in and play differently in rivalry games. We are not overlooking them whatsoever, I can tell you that right now. We're treating them like they're the old Louisville."
Rivalry games also bring about the strange and unknown, and the modern UK-U of L series has had plenty of unpredictability. Who could forget the "lightning game" in 2000, when an electrical storm caused more than a one-hour delay in the third quarter with UK leading 19-14. The Cards came back to win 40-34 in overtime.
Louisville was more than a three-touchdown favorite in 2005 and led 28-7 at halftime before UK rallied and looked on the verge of a game-tying score when Andre Woodson fumbled at the 2 to preserve a 31-24 Cardinals win.
And underdog Kentucky looked dead in the water in 2007 as it trailed in the final minute until Steve Johnson got behind the U of L defense for a 57-yard game-winning TD with 28 seconds left. Kentucky has been in control of the series since.
"Weird things happen in these games," Smith said. "Before Steve caught that pass, everybody had their heads down. But he caught it, and it changed everything."
Senior defensive tackle Corey Peters agreed:
"In a rivalry game, you never know what's going to happen. Anybody can win; anything can happen. It doesn't matter how good either team is supposed to be, you better bring your 'A' game, or you could lose."
Brooks has been trying to prepare his team for what figures to be a juiced-up Louisville squad to start the game.
"As much as anything, it's an emotional game, and usually the underdog has more emotion because they hear it all year long," Brooks said. "That's what my concern is. We have to match or surpass that emotion and make sure we continue to execute while we do that."