To most Kentucky football fans, the upcoming season prompts little optimism. And the opener might as well represent the yawning jaws of hell.
After watching their team begin last season with a sputter, start to find itself while getting its collective brains bashed in and – finally – play its best football in the latter stages of the year, members of the Big Blue Nation are expecting little, if any, improvement in 2012. And it’s hard to find anyone who is predicting a victory in Game One.
That would be Sept. 2 at Louisville, if you haven’t circled it on your schedule already. The Nation, for the most part, is not looking forward to it. In fact, all too many long-suffering UK fans are embracing the familiar posture that a loss to the Cardinals will prove insurmountable, that the Wildcats will become so overwhelmed by the defeat that they’ll shut down internally, rendering the rest of the season little more than a formality en route to a 4-8 record, or worse.
The actual value of the UK-U of L football series has become a topic of debate among UK fans again; it seems as though it always is during the months leading up to a game that has Louisville favored.
U of L has everything to gain and nothing to lose, the reasoning goes. It’s the Cards’ annual chance to upend a team from the mighty Southeastern Conference. What does Kentucky gain by beating a team from an inferior conference?
Of course, ask yourself this: Have you ever heard a UK football fan make that argument in the giddy moments following a victory over the Cardinals – especially after a game Kentucky wasn’t supposed to win?
Underdog status does bring out the gloom, if not doom, in members of the Nation. Of course, they’re the ones who will chew on a bitter defeat for 364 days, should it happen. Kentucky’s players? They’ll be disappointed as well – angry, even. A lot of them hate those guys in red. But they can’t wallow in it. They have 11 more games, maybe 12, to play.
And that’s why, it says here, one should reject the notion that the team that loses this game will pack up shop for the rest of the season. Some fans – maybe even a lot of them – might. But not the players. And history bears this out.
Eighteen times, these two teams have squared off during the modern era of college football. Louisville has a 10-8 advantage. And depending on the prism through which you study each team and their respective records, at no time has the game launched either team into an unexpected tailspin. In fact, during several seasons, just the opposite has occurred – for one or both.
Often times the result was predictable. Sometimes, it was a clue of things to come. And just as many times, the losing team survived and went on to a productive season.
Kentucky and Louisville, at the time both mired in mediocrity, split the first four games of the series, all played at Commonwealth Stadium, as U of L didn’t yet have a decent stadium. Head coaches Bill Curry and Howard Schnellenberger got together and decided to play, in order to promote football in the state.
The crafty Schnellenberger also realized that by agreeing to play the first four games in Lexington, it likely would expedite support from the U of L administration and fan base for a new facility. He was right. Game 5 in the series was played in brand new Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium.
That was also the day Tim Couch, Craig Yeast and the Wildcats destroyed the Cardinals, 68-34. UK eventually ended up in the Outback Bowl. But did the humiliating loss send U of L into a funk? Quite the contrary; the Cards finished the season on a four-game winning streak, resulting in a 7-5 record.
Likewise, Kentucky survived the following season, when U of L dusted the Wildcats, 56-28. At 6-6, UK ended up in a bowl game.
The 2000 game provided a clue as to what we could expect that season. The Cards dealt with lightning, thunder and a rain delay better than the Wildcats did, winning 40-34 in overtime. UK missed several opportunities to win, just as it did all season, finishing 2-9.
In ’02 Kentucky dropped another hint of things to come; this time, by coming back to the River City and upsetting the 17th-ranked Cards en route to a surprising 7-5 record. But U of L survived the setback and finished 7-5 itself, upsetting then #2 Florida State before losing to Marshall in the GMAC Bowl.
The ’04 affair was more than just a clue, it was a statement: Kentucky would struggle this season, Louisville would not. In the only shutout of the modern day series, the Cards beat the Cats 28-0 as UK could generate no offense, a theme throughout a 2-9 season that saw offensive coordinator Ron Hudson resign under fire prior to the Tennessee game. U of L finished 11-1.
A year later, the matchup provided more insight. The Cards would win in Lexington, but undermanned Kentucky was much more competitive, falling 31-24 thanks in part to a late turnover. UK dealt with a major rash of injuries all season, going 3-8. U of L wound up 9-3.
The next two seasons saw the losing team survive again. In ’06, Louisville pounded Kentucky, 59-28, but the Wildcats went to the Music City Bowl, anyway. In ’07, Andre’ Woodson-to-Stevie Johnson in the closing moments helped the Cats steal a 40-34 victory, but the Cards still finished 6-6 under besieged head coach Steve Kragthorpe.
In fact, UK kept on beating Kragthorpe, winning each of the next two, both ending in bowl games for the Cats, losing records for the Cards who, in ’09, said goodbye to Kragthorpe. At the same time, the Wildcats bid farewell to a retiring Rich Brooks.
Enter Charlie Strong and Joker Phillips, whose team won 23-16 in 2010, thanks to a big-play offense led by Mike Hartline, Randall Cobb and Derrick Locke. The Wildcats ended up in a fifth consecutive bowl game. But the Cardinals survived the setback and went bowling as well. In fact, they won their post season game – something the Cats failed to do.
Last season, Louisville counted the Kentucky game among its seven victories in a 7-6 season. The Wildcats endured their first losing record in five years, although they showed in the season finale against Tennessee, even with the possibility of a bowl bid gone, they still had a lot to play for.
So maybe the Wildcats DO lose their opener to the Cardinals. And maybe, as they did in ’02, they travel to Louisville as decided underdogs and pull off the upset. Whatever happens, both teams figure to go back to work the following Monday, intent on winning as many games as they can.
In a sport where you get only 12 chances to play, it’s a lot easier when you win that first one. But it’s hardly impossible to bounce back. We’ve seen it before.
(For a more detailed look at the results of the Kentucky-Louisville game, go to bigblueinsider.com.)
Dick Gabriel is in his 23rd season with the UK TV and Radio Networks, and can be heard on the Big Blue Insider Monday through Friday from 6-8 p.m. ET on 630 WLAP-AM and wlap.com.