On a Louisville sports radio talk show Tuesday afternoon, I was asked a question I had already been thinking quite a bit about this Governor’s Cup rivalry week.
More so than normal, both coaches need to claim victory this year in the commonwealth’s defining rivalry.
For Louisville’s Petrino, defeating UK would take some sting out of what has been a disappointing fourth season of his second stint as top Card.
Overall, Petrino 2.0 has not lived up to the exacting standard he set during his first go-around (2003-06) as U of L coach.
Back then, Petrino went 41-9 and led Louisville to two conference championships, 2004 in Conference USA and 2006 in the Big East. The Cardinals made two appearances in the Associated Press top 10 final rankings (6th in both 2004 and 2006) and claimed an Orange Bowl victory (2006).
Petrino’s second tenure at U of L launched as the school moved up in class to the ACC in 2014.
The results so far are so-so. Even with reigning Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson at quarterback, Petrino and Louisville are 7-7 in their last 14 games.
During his second run, Petrino is 1-9 against teams ranked in the AP Top 25.
Overall, Petrino is 33-17 at Louisville since 2014, 21-11 in ACC contests.
In his first tenure at Louisville, Petrino dominated Kentucky. Bobby P. went 4-0 against the Cats (who were working back from a severe NCAA probation) and outscored UK 158-76.
Mastering Kentucky has proven more challenging this time around.
The Cardinals had to rally in the second half to win in 2014 and ’15. Last year, Bobby P.’s aura of invincibility was finally pierced when UK, as a 27-point underdog, stunned the No. 11 Cards 41-38 at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium.
If Petrino takes a second straight loss to Kentucky, and does so again as a double-digit favorite (10 points this year) and with Jackson at quarterback, the coach may find his hold on the U of L fan base loosened in a way it never has before.
For Kentucky’s Stoops (26-34 overall, 12-28 SEC), defeating U of L would establish the coach’s fifth season as a clear success.
If the Wildcats win, Stoops will have led UK to its first eight-win regular season since 1984. The coach would be the first at Kentucky with victories over Tennessee and Louisville in the same season since Fred J. Murphy in 1924.
An eighth win would mean Stoops and Kentucky took a step up from last year’s 7-5 regular season, too. In the perception-oriented world of college football, that matters.
The upset of Louisville in 2016 was easily the most significant win of Stoops’ UK tenure. Backing it up with another would deposit major goodwill in the Mark Stoops account at the First Bank of the Big Blue Nation.
However, if Stoops loses to Louisville for the fourth time in five meetings, it will embolden the element of the UK fan base that sees the 2017 season — which saw UK blessed by an unusually favorable schedule — as more missed opportunity than program progress.
A week after UK gave up 504 total yards and 381 rushing yards at Georgia, the last thing Stoops needs is for Louisville’s dynamic Jackson to slice and dice the Cats while hanging a grotesque number on the scoreboard.
If that happens, the fact Stoops has led Kentucky to bowl eligibility in back-to-back seasons may take a back seat to how unimpressive UK’s defensive numbers (82nd of 129 FBS teams in total defense) remain in the fifth year of a defensive-minded head coach.
So, Stoops or Petrino, who most needs to win Saturday?
The answer, narrowly, is Stoops.