Every year the Kentucky-Louisville football game seems to have a storyline that will define at least one team’s season. In 2007, the Andre Woodson-Brian Brohm battle was about proving how far Rich Brooks had made the program rise and how far Kragthorpe was going to take Louisville’s program down. Last year, the pressure was on Louisville as the game was a must win for Kragthorpe to keep his job. He lost…and proceeded to have a Dead Man Walking type year. This year however the pressure shifts as Joker Phillips and the Cats face a “really need to win game” right out of the gate. The initial pressure is simply to beat your rival and win a big nonconference game. Every year the Cats play in the SEC, getting bowl eligible is an accomplishment. The schedule this year is tough (as always) and the UL game is often a must win to get 6-6. For that reason alone, winning is imperative.
But this year adds another dimension. The game in Louisville is the first battle to start the next generation of they UK-UL war. Assuming that UL stays in a BCS Conference (which granted is not assured depending on the events of the next couple of weeks), Joker Phillips and Louisville’s Charlie Strong are headed for an intense rivalry that will define the next decade of football in the state. The state does not produce enough players to stock two programs and part of UK’s rise in recent years has been raiding the city of Louisville. Strong has the ability to stop that, with strong recruiting and a winning product on the field. Joker needs to go into Louisville, on the Cards home turf, get a win and tell the high school players in Louisville, “keep coming to Kentucky…thats four in a row.”
In addition, this is probably the worst team Strong will have over the next few years. Unlike Steve Kragthorpe, who inherited a stocked roster and took it to pieces (7 of his starting 11 offensive players that first year are in the NFL…and he couldnt take them to a Bowl game), Strong has very little in reserve. This team will struggle and could produce another ugly season. Joker needs to pounce now, with an offensive team that brings back most of its stars and a young defense that must rise to the occasion quickly. As Joker’s early recruiting suggests, UK’s talent level is likely to rise. However Strong’s is certain to rise (it cant help but do so), and this is the year to take control early, even on the road.
Very rarely do I think a game is a “must-win” for a program. Football and basketball players have short memories and single games often fade into the woodwork. So while I wont call this a “must win”, it is pretty dang important. Unlike in basketball, where both teams can rise and fall independently of each other, it may be that only one football team in the state can truly be top-notch. The talent in Kentucky isnt great enough and being King of the state helps go get players from other places, players that often are considering both schools (it is the case UL can go after some more partial-qualifiers that UK cannot, but after Petrino, they arent doing this as much). Being the best team in the state creates a snowball effect, as Louisville showed in the middle part of the last decade and UK at the end. Joker and Strong are friends, but will be battling for years. It is important to get the first shot and to make Strong’s climb even greater. The first Saturday in September is Joker’s chance to start out on top…in my view, the second most important UK-UL game (behind 2007) for the Cats this decade. Lets get it done.