Mark Story

Cats-Cards is a head-scratcher

Two years ago in the Herald-Leader College Football Preview, I picked Louisville to beat Kentucky by 32 points.

U of L won by 31.

Last season, I predicted Kentucky would upset U of L by four.

Six was the Cats' actual margin of victory.

Last week, I made my pick on The Governor's Cup rivalry for the 2008 Herald-Leader preview (which you can read on Sunday).

In doing so, I realized something: I have no earthly idea what is going to happen in Papa John's Cardinal Stadium on Aug. 31.

When the summer began, Kentucky optimism for a second straight win over Louisville rested primarily on three factors.

The hope of a significantly improved UK defense; a potentially potent running game; and the forward momentum that comes from the Cats having won 13 of their last 19 games.

Now, only 12 days from kickoff, some of the positive vibes around Kentucky football have been eroded by the fact that three projected starters are not presently in the mix.

The academic status of offensive guard Christian Johnson remains in limbo. Grades have already sidelined starting cornerback Paul Warford.

Curtis Pulley — who was projected to be UK's starting quarterback — was dismissed from the team by Rich Brooks for disciplinary reasons.

Pulley may never have been an effective passer, but his kinetic athleticism was going to give Kentucky a running threat under center that opposing defenses had to account for.

UK is left with a projected QB, Mike Hartline, who has thrown a whopping six passes in his college career. There's no way to project how Hartline will play while making his first college start in a rivalry game on the road.

Breaking in a new QB puts more pressure on the Kentucky running attack. UK has three backs — Tony Dixon, Alfonso Smith and Derrick Locke — who have proven themselves capable in big games.

However, none of the three has ever had to be “the guy.” There may prove to be quite a difference running the ball against defenses stacked to stop the run as opposed to running when foes had to respect the deep passing threat of Andre Woodson.

Good news is UK does have an experienced offensive front. Bad news is that it's a long-standing historical fact that veteran Kentucky O-lines have tended to underachieve (see 2003 for the most recent example).

On paper, the Kentucky defense does look capable of taking the proverbial “big step up.” Still, UK's seven returning starters are back from a unit that allowed foes to convert an ugly 45 percent of their third-down conversions in 2007.

So anyone who tells you they know what to expect from Kentucky in the season opener is kidding themselves.

Yet there is every bit as much reason to be unsure about Louisville.

The positives U of L brings into the game are a talented quarterback with college starting experience; the more desperate head coach in terms of needing to win this game this year; and a self-proclaimed new unity of purpose after last year's 6-6 slog.

There is no knock on strong-armed Hunter Cantwell, who is 3-1 in place of an injured Brian Brohm as a starting quarterback at Louisville.

The pre-season talk of togetherness coming from the U of L camp after the tumult of Steve Kragthorpe's first year on the Cardinals sideline seems credible.

What is far from apparent is just what the talent level at Louisville presently is.

There are only nine full-time starters back from last season. Roughly two dozen players who would have been eligible at U of L in 2008 have been lost to various forms of attrition.

With such roster upheaval, Kragthorpe & Co. went heavily to the junior-college ranks, signing 10 players for 2008.

As a rule, it usually takes even gifted junior-college players a year to fully adjust to major college football.

Throw in new coordinators on both sides of the ball, and anyone who tells you they know what to expect from Louisville in the season opener is delusional.

Which, as you'll see in our preview on Sunday, didn't stop me from picking the game.

But, this year, it's completely a guess.

When it comes to Cats vs. Cards, 2008, there's only one thing about which I feel sure.

Louisvillian Sue Grafton — of alphabet mystery fame — should be asked to conduct the pre-game coin toss.

This year, U is for Uncertainty.