With 2016 College Football Playoff champion Clemson traveling to Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium this weekend to face 2016 Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson (and Louisville), the nation has fixated on The Ville.
ABC moved kickoff from Saturday afternoon to prime time at 8 p.m. ESPN has dispatched the hype machine that is the “College GameDay” franchise — television and radio versions — to Louisville.
It’s easy to wonder: In terms of perceived magnitude, has there ever been a “bigger” college football game played inside the state limits of Kentucky?
Believe it or not, there is stiff competition just in the 2000s. For Saturday’s showdown between No. 3 Clemson and No. 14 Louisville to lay claim as the “biggest” college football game played inside the commonwealth in the 21st century, there are four massively built-up prior games — listed in chronological order — it must exceed.
1.) No. 5 Louisville 44, No. 3 West Virginia 34, Nov. 2, 2006
The build-up: West Virginia came to Louisville riding a 14-game winning streak. U of L, in what would turn out to be the final year of Bobby Petrino’s first stint as Cardinals coach, was 7-0. The game’s winner was thought likely to finish the season undefeated and possibly be in position to earn a berth in the BCS Championship Game.
The postscript: After homegrown U of L quarterback Brian Brohm (19-for-26 passing for 354 yards) led the Cardinals to victory, Louisville backers stormed the field. Alas, U of L’s dreams of the BCS title game ended one week later when the Cardinals were stunned, 28-25, at Rutgers.
2.) No. 17 Kentucky 43, No. 1 LSU 37 (3OT), Oct. 13, 2007
The build-up: A bit of pregame luster had been lost after UK, 5-0 and ranked No. 8, played poorly and lost 38-23 at South Carolina in its prior contest. Still, it was No. 1 LSU coming to Lexington to face a ranked Kentucky that had already beaten No. 9 Louisville and won at defending SEC West champion Arkansas.
The postscript: Kentucky’s rally from 27-13 down in the second half to win dramatically in the third OT was the first time in UK football history that the Wildcats beat a No. 1 team in Lexington (and third time overall). UK moved back into the AP top 10 at No. 8 the following week.
3.) No. 14 Florida 45, No. 8 Kentucky 37, Oct. 20, 2007
The build-up: With UK coming off the upset of No. 1 LSU, ESPN “College GameDay” came to Lexington the following week for the first (and, so far, only) time. UK vs. UF was billed as a “Heisman Trophy elimination round” between Wildcats senior quarterback Andre Woodson and Gators sophomore QB Tim Tebow.
The postscript: What had started as a special season for Kentucky was never the same after the Florida loss. The Cats, 6-1 entering the game, went 2-4 the rest of the way. Tebow went on to win the 2007 Heisman Trophy.
4.) No. 10 Louisville 63, No. 2 Florida State 20, Sept. 17, 2016
The build-up: Lamar Jackson had enthralled the nation the prior week with “The Lamar Leap” at Syracuse. “College GameDay” came to Louisville to see if the U of L sophomore QB could pass the FSU credibility test.
The postscript: Louisville’s demolition of Florida State and Jackson’s brilliance (four touchdowns rushing; a fifth passing) in orchestrating it set both team and player up for national glory. The 2016 Heisman Trophy was in Jackson’s grasp from this week forward. After FSU, U of L was perceived as a legit College Football Playoff contender — right up until the Cardinals were upset by Houston and Kentucky in their final two regular-season games.
5.) No. 3 Clemson at No. 14 Louisville, Sept. 16, 2017
The build-up: Since Louisville joined the ACC in 2014, Dabo Swinney’s Tigers have been U of L’s nemesis, beating the Cardinals by six, three and six points.
With Florida State quarterback Deondre Francois out for the season due to injury, the winner of U of L-Clemson is in the driver’s seat to make the ACC Championship Game and, possibly, the College Football Playoff.
Yet, in terms of magnitude, what potentially separates this contest from the others above is the cachet of college football’s defending national champion squaring off against the reigning Heisman Trophy winner.
It just doesn’t get much cooler than that.
Now we wait to see if the game proves worthy of its immense build-up.