The Louisville Cardinals and the Kentucky Wildcats kick off their seasons on Sunday in grand fashion. While most teams have their rival game at the end of, or at least later in, the season, the Commonwealth of Kentucky will get at it on college football's opening weekend.
While the gridiron competition doesn't carry the same clout as when the teams meet on the hard-court, this is still a bitter in-state rivalry and both teams should be prepared to play.
The Cardinals are coming off a 7-6 2011 season that ended with a frustrating 31-24 defeat to North Carolina State in the Belk Bowl. Kentucky was 5-7 last season, including a 1-4 record against the SEC East.
Where: Papa John's Cardinal Stadium, Louisville, KY
When: September 2, 2012–3:30pm ET
Listen: WHAS 840 AM Louisville, KY, WKYM-FM 101.7 Kentucky
Betting Line: Louisville -14
Louisville is the preseason favorite to win the Big East. They will need a strong showing in Week 1 to prove they are up to the challenge.
"Now all of a sudden you've been picked to go win the conference. Guys, then I'm sorry. That's just the way it is," Strong told his players, per cbssports.com. "That's who we are right now. That's what people think of you. So if you someone thinks that high of you, then let's go show them. Let's go work like we want to get to that level."
Key Storyline: The Weather
Louisville snapped a four-game losing streak to the Wildcats with their victory last season. They will be looking to establish a winning streak of their own this year.
The Wildcats have an unproven secondary and the Cardinals are without one of their top wide receivers, adding one more reason for Louisville to try to run the ball early and often.
The biggest reason to expect a heavy ground game is the weather forecast. Weather.com is calling for rain, and lots of it.
There could be as much as six inches over the weekend, which would make points hard to come by.
Who Might Not Play for Kentucky
Josh Clemons is doubtful for the Wildcats. He is expected to carry the load for Kentucky's offense but knee issues will almost certainly keep him on the sidelines.
Losing your leading tailback for this contest isn't a good sign.
Who Might Not Play for Louisville
Wide receiver Michaelee Harris suffered a torn ACL last week and was lost for the season. This was a hefty blow for a team needing help on offense.
BCS/Top 25 Implications
Louisville needs to win this game if they want to spend the first two months of their season in the Top 25. They are currently 25th in the AP Top 25, but unranked in the USA TODAY Poll and most other rankings.
Their next four contests are against BCS doormats, such as North Carolina and Florida International.
Voters should take a bit tougher stance on ranking a program like Louisville in the Top 25. Their Big East schedule is hardly challenging and they offset it with several win-padding non-conference games.
If the Cardinals win the Big East they might flirt with entering the bowl picture without a loss. They do not have an opponent on their schedule that is currently in the Top 25.
What They’re Saying
In case there are any doubts on how much talent exists on these two teams, Chris Steuber (draft scout and director of player personnel for the Georgia Force) shares information on the interest from NFL franchises.
Most of the chatter around this game is how dominant Louisville should be, touching on Kentucky being the largest underdog in all of the Bowl Championship Subdivision (FBS) this weekend. But there are voices of dissent.
Phil Steele picks Kentucky (-14) as his National Underdog play of the week and pick the Cats to win outright 21-20 over Louisville— Matt Jones (@KySportsRadio) August 26, 2012
It should be interesting to see the culmination of #louisvillehateday.
Who to Watch for Kentucky
One of the biggest concerns for Kentucky is generating some offense. They compiled a paltry 259.8 yards per game (YPG) last season. The lowest-ranked team, Florida Atlantic, had a little over 10 fewer YPG.
Kent State was the only other team of the 120 FBS schools with a lower average.
Kentucky did a little better relative to scoring. Their 15.8 points per game (PPG) was better than three schools.
Kentucky will need sophomore quarterback Maxwell Smith to step up this season in general, but particularly against Louisville's stingy run defense.
Who to Watch for Louisville
Louisville's offense wasn't much better last season, averaging just 333.0 YPG. That was good for 96th in the FBS rankings, while their 21.9 PPG was 98th.
The Cardinals are a young team and will be led by quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. He was the Big East rookie of the year in 2011 as a true freshman and will be looking to build rapport with freshman WR Charles Gaines.
Louisville may be content to lean on the run game in this contest, particularly if the rains come as expected. They can rotate running backs and make for a long day for Wildcat fans.
Despite their offensive woes, Louisville is rather decent at stopping the run. They aren't likely to land in the Top-10 again in 2012 as they have depth issues, but they should be able to keep most of their opponents from moving the chains much with a ground game.
If Kentucky is going to challenge in this game, their wide receivers will need to come up big against a questionable Louisville secondary. Their backfield had just seven interceptions in 2011 and they could be the weak-spot of their defense.
While they are solid at the safety spots, particularly with Hakeem Smith, their corners have a bit to prove.
Wide receiver La’Rod King could create some nice separation and help his team move the ball through the air. Louisville corner Adrian Bushnell will likely be charged with slowing King down.
Even if King can get open, Smith will need to prove he can get him the ball.
On the Hot Seat
It's a bit early in his tenure to claim that Charlie Strong is on the hot seat, but his first two seasons on the sidelines have at least brought the Cardinals back to being relevant.
There are expectations being placed on him and his program to do more than finish above .500 in 2012, such as winning the Big East.
Strong's team is a heavy favorite in this game and a loss would derail Louisville's season before it gets out of the station.
Louisville has been a big favorite before, but their play on the field hasn't supported the spreads.
The last time Louisville was ranked and faced Kentucky was 2007. They were No. 9 and on the road, falling to the Wildcats 40-34.
I can't get on board with those that are predicting an upset in this game, but I'm not certain that Louisville has the firepower to cover a 14-point spread in a potential downpour. Louisville has a bevy of talent at running back and will have an easier time moving the ball.