October 22nd, 2014

REED: It's crunch time for Cats, Cards

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Billy Reed

Executive Editor


REED: It's crunch time for Cats, Cards
Kentucky will face the Heisman Trophy frontrunner in Dak Prescott when it takes on top-ranked Mississippi State Saturday / photo from Mississippi State athletics

Beginning on Saturday, Louisville and Kentucky will embark upon what I believe to be the most important, interesting and significant 35-day period in the history of major college football in the commonwealth. Heck, it might even be exciting enough to detract attention from basketball practice and exhibitions.

The Cardinals have four juicy games on their regular-season schedule, the Wildcats five.  Each will play two top-10 teams that still have aspirations of making the new four-team playoff for the national championship. But every game is so important that when UK and U of L conclude their seasons against each other on Nov. 29, much more than the Governor’s Cup could be at stake.

With a 6-2 record, the Cards already are eligible for a postseason bowl. At 5-2, the Cats are one  victory away from qualification. At the least, their meeting could decide where each goes bowling. It is the first time since the teams began playing on a regular basis in 1993 that something tangible will be up for grabs.

Let’s look at the 36 days in Pigskin Heaven:

SATURDAY – For the first time in school history, Mississippi State will take the field ranked as the nation’s No. 1 team against UK on Saturday afternoon in Commonwealth Stadium. The Bulldogs are unbeaten and have the Heisman Trophy frontrunner in quarterback Dak Prescott. They figure to dominate a Wildcat team coming off a dispiriting 41-3 loss to LSU in Baton Rouge. Still, State would be making a mistake to take for granted a UK team that beat South Carolina at home and lost to Florida in overtime on the road.

THURSDAY, Oct. 30 – If UK is able to stun Mississippi State, Florida State will be ranked No. 1 when the Seminoles take the field in Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. Unless I’m mistaken, it will be the first time an undefeated defending national champion will play in Louisville. The Seminoles are led by reigning Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston — assuming, that is, that he doesn’t do anything disgraceful between now and then — but some experts feel they might be ripe for an upset if U of L coach Bobby Petrino’s offense comes together.

Question: Have the No. 1 and No. 2 teams ever played in Kentucky within a six-day period?

SATURDAY, Nov. 1 – UK plays on the road against a 5-2 Missouri team that still has hopes of making the SEC championship game. In at least one set of current rankings, Mizzou is 31st in the nation, UK 35th. This will be another game that will be crucial to where the teams go bowling.

SATURDAY, Nov. 8 – The Wildcats will play host to Georgia, which is currently ranked anywhere from eighth to 10th nationally. The Bulldogs are hoping to have back star runner Todd Gurley, who was sidelined for consorting with autograph dealers. But even without Gurley, the Bulldogs have gotten better as the season has unfolded and believe they’re as good as anybody in the country.

This also is the day U of L plays on the road against a Boston College team that’s better than its 4-3 record indicates. The Eagles upset Southern Cal early in the season and they lost to Clemson by only four on the road. This game should be significant to Louisville’s large Catholic population, considering that BC and Notre Dame are the only two Catholic universities that play Division I football.

SATURDAY, Nov. 15 – Once a rivalry that inspired great emotions on both sides of the Kentucky-Tennessee border, the series has lost its mojo due to Tennessee’s utter domination over the last 30 years. Nevertheless, a win over the Vols in Knoxville would mean a lot to UK’s fan base and its bowl stock.

SATURDAY, Nov. 22 – Like every other city in America that became home to Catholic immigrants from Europe, Louisville has always had a large Notre Dame fan base. Generations of Catholic moms have prayed that their sons would be good enough to play in South Bend. Now, finally, the Cards will make their first appearance in the college football shrine that is Notre Dame Stadium. Historically and symbolically, this will be one of the most important moments in Cardinal football history. Interesting footnote: The game will be played on the 51st anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the only Roman Catholic to hold the nation’s highest office.

SATURDAY, Nov. 29 – When played as the season opener or the third game, it was too early in the season to figure out what, if anything, the game would mean in the Big Picture for both teams. But now, as the season finale, both teams will know exactly what’s at stake. One possibility is that UK could be playing for the sixth win that will make it bowl-eligible. Most likely, however, the game will decide where both teams will fall in the agreements both their conferences have with the bowls.

Last summer, when the prevailing wisdom was that the Wildcats wouldn’t be very good, the UK athletic department — in a stunning display of non-support — returned to U of L a portion of its ticket allotment. Now Wildcat fans who could have bought those tickets for the printed price will have to pay scalper’s prices if they want to get into Papa John’s. It will be the first battle of wits and styles between U of L’s Bobby Petrino and UK’s Mark Stoops, and it promises to be one of the most exciting games in the series.

It’s pointless, of course, to expect U of L and UK fans to put basketball on the back burner for the next few weeks. At least, however, the level of football competition — and the stakes that will be on the line each and every week — are proof positive that both programs now are on the cutting edge of college football’s future.

 

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