Mark Story

Everything common sense tells you about UK-U of L football is wrong

Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson threw for 338 yards and three touchdowns and ran for a team-high 83 yards to lead UK to a stunning 41-38 upset of No. 11 Louisville last season at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium.
Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson threw for 338 yards and three touchdowns and ran for a team-high 83 yards to lead UK to a stunning 41-38 upset of No. 11 Louisville last season at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium.

One of the downsides of playing the annual Kentucky-Louisville football game on the same weekend as Alabama-Auburn, Michigan-Ohio State and other more traditional rivalries is that it has almost no chance to attract meaningful national attention.

That’s too bad.

As we count down to the 24th modern meeting between the Cats (7-4, 4-4 SEC) and Cards (7-4, 4-4 ACC) Saturday at high noon at Kroger Field, it is appropriate to celebrate our state’s quirky football rivalry that has so often defied common sense.

Conventional wisdom would tell you Kentucky fans should be encouraged that this year’s Wildcats-Cardinals throwdown is in Lexington.

The reality is road teams have dominated the Governor’s Cup.

Kentucky players hoisted the Governor's Cup after UK stunned No. 11 Louisville 41-38 last season to claim the trophy that goes to the winner of the Wildcats-Cardinals football game for the first time since 2010. Jonathan Palmer

Kentucky has beaten Louisville more times in Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium (5-5) than it has in the venue long known as Commonwealth Stadium (4-9). UK has defeated U of L twice in The Ville (2010 and 2016) since its last victory over the Cardinals (2009) in Lexington.

Conventional wisdom would tell you Louisville fans should be encouraged that U of L is a 10-point favorite for this year’s Cards-Cats showdown.

The reality is favorites are a so-so 14-9 straight up in the modern Governor’s Cup rivalry. (If you track such things for entertainment purposes, favorites are 9-14 against the point spread).

Conventional wisdom would tell you Louisville backers should have been thrilled when the SEC and ACC moved Cats-Cards to the final game of the regular season in 2014.

One of my theories on how the Kentucky-Tennessee football series got so out of whack competitively — UT has beaten UK 31 of the past 33 meetings though the Cats are riding a one-game win streak — is that the Vols and Cats traditionally played on the 11th week of the season.

By the 11th week, after a Kentucky program that has long struggled to build quality depth had gone through the meat grinder of the SEC schedule, the Cats were oft at a greater disadvantage versus Tennessee than they would have been earlier in seasons.

Since the modern Kentucky-Louisville football rivalry resumed in 1994, the Cardinals have taken home the Governor’s Cup 14 times, while the Wildcats have claimed the trophy nine times, including last season. Lexington Herald-Leader file photo

Once Kentucky-Louisville became the season finale, I wondered if UK would get beaten up physically in the SEC and be less competitive against the Cards than they had been from 1994-2013 when the game was played early in the season.

The reality is Kentucky has been more competitive since the game moved to the final week of the season.

In 2014, as a 14-point underdog to U of L, UK led in the fourth quarter before falling 44-40.

In 2015, as a 5  1/2 -point home underdog, UK led 24-7 at the half before a fabulous Louisville freshman, chap by the name of Lamar Jackson, rallied the Cardinals to a 38-24 victory.

Last year, as a 27-point underdog, Kentucky stunned Louisville 41-38 as UK’s unheralded junior-college transfer quarterback, Stephen Johnson, outdueled U of L’s soon-to-be Heisman Trophy winner, Jackson.

So, this Saturday, conventional wisdom would tell Kentucky fans to be encouraged that Louisville will again be the Cats’ regular-season finale.

The reality, however, is that for the first time in the past four years, this game “sets up” better for Bobby Petrino and U of L than Mark Stoops and UK.

Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops talks about Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson, who won the Heisman Trophy last season. Jackson and Louisville play at UK on Saturday.

In 2014, Kentucky had an open date the week before it faced the Cardinals; Louisville won at Notre Dame.

In 2015, Kentucky routed FBS-newcomer Charlotte the week before U of L; the Cards lost at Pittsburgh.

Last season, UK whipped FCS foe Austin Peay the week before Louisville; the Cardinals suffered a crushing defeat at Houston.

This year, Kentucky enters the game after suffering a 42-13 beatdown at No. 7 Georgia. Against the physically punishing Bulldogs, UK lost valuable tight end C.J. Conrad for the season to a foot injury and saw key defenders in nose guard Quinton Bohanna (ankle) and safety Mike Edwards (hip) suffer injuries.

Conversely, Louisville comes to Kroger Field off a 56-10 home pasting of slumping Syracuse.

Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson ran for 171 yards and two touchdowns and passed for 281 yards and three TDs against Kentucky last season but also turned the ball over four times in No. 11 U of L’s 41-38 upset loss to the Wildcats. Jonathan Palmer

The contrast in how U of L enters the game versus how UK does should give the Cardinals a clear advantage Saturday.

Given the quirky unpredictability of the modern Governor’s Cup, U of L fans should perhaps be more worried than boosted by that.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader