Mark Story

Mark Story: At this point, UK 'needs' a Cats-Cards football rivalry more than U of L

Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops, left, and Louisville Coach Bobby Petrino
Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops, left, and Louisville Coach Bobby Petrino

Since we are entering a brave, new world this week in the football series between Kentucky and Louisville, it seems only appropriate to challenge the conventional thinking about the rivalry.

From the time the modern Governor's Cup series began in 1994, the thought has always been that the annual football game between UK and U of L was more important to Louisville.

For reasons I'll explain below, starting with the first meeting between Kentucky and Louisville since the Cardinals joined the Atlantic Coast Conference Saturday, the UK-U of L rivalry game is now more "needed" by the Wildcats program.

That was not the case two decades ago when C.M. Newton and Bill Curry agreed on Kentucky's behalf with Louisville's Bill Olsen and Howard Schnellenberger for the Cats and Cards to play football each year.

In 1994, the Cardinals were still playing as an independent. Across the years, as U of L worked its way through Conference-USA, the Big East and The American Athletic Conference, the UK-U of L game helped the Cardinals enhance the perception of their program.

However, now that U of L has a presence in one of the power five conferences, it no longer "needs" games with UK of the SEC to establish its pigskin legitimacy. Regular matchups with Florida State and Clemson and occasional meetings with the Miami Hurricanes and Notre Dame will serve just fine to authenticate Louisville's competition level.

Conversely, until UK shows the ability to win games against the (non-Vanderbilt) SEC East rivals it plays every year, Louisville stands as the one game annually on the Wildcats schedule that the Cats win with even a meager degree of frequency that moves the needle with UK fans.

Kentucky's 8-12 record against Louisville in the modern Governor's Cup may not sound like anything to brag about. It beats the heck out of 1-29, 0-28, 2-16, 2-13 and 0-3, though.

Those are, in order, the recent streaks produced by UK against SEC East rivals Tennessee, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Missouri.

At the behest of the SEC and the ACC, Kentucky (5-6) and Louisville (8-3) will play on the final weekend of the regular season for the first time in the history of the modern series Saturday at noon. Along with Florida-Florida State, Georgia-Georgia Tech and South Carolina-Clemson, UK-U of L are part of a de facto SEC-ACC football challenge.

So now Cats-Cards will share a weekend with traditional college grudgefests like Auburn-Alabama, Ohio State-Michigan and Notre Dame-Southern California.

The hope is that UK-U of L is enhanced by sharing the same stage as the established rivalries.

I fear that, outside our state, the Governor's Cup will instead be completely overshadowed.

There are 32 games this week involving Power Five conference teams. Giving UK-U of L every benefit of the doubt, I would rank it as the 24th most attractive to a national audience of those 32 games.

To his credit, Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops acknowledged Monday at his weekly news conference that it is UK that needs to step up its game to make the Kentucky-Louisville football rivalry more compelling nationally.

"We're trying to create it to be a bigger and better rivalry," Stoops said. "I think that comes from us having to play better football and winning more games and putting ourselves in a position where we can get this game on a more national scale."

It will be fascinating to see if moving Cats-Cards to the end of the season alters the fundamental nature of the series. As the opener — or at least, as an early-season contest — mystery defined the Kentucky-Louisville rivalry. Home teams are only 8-12. Favorites are just 12-8 straight up (though the favorite has won four of the last five).

As the season finale, we will lose that mystery. Will there be enough season-altering upsets and late-year drama to replace it? For that matter, will our state's college basketball mania overwhelm the football rivalry now that the battle for the Governor's Cup overlaps with hoops?

Time will tell.

What we do know is a UK victory Saturday would make the Wildcats bowl eligible. It would be the biggest win so far in Stoops' two seasons as Kentucky coach.

Which is why Louisville is a game Kentucky really needs, on several different levels.

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