New Day for Bluegrass Football: Will Kentucky or Louisville Own the Future?
In 1998 the Louisville football Cardinals were highly regarded, set to dominate the Conference USA football scene, and possibly, make a legitimate run at college football greatness as they opened play at the new Papa John's Cardinal Stadium against intrastate rival Kentucky.
On the other side of the field, the hapless Kentucky Wildcats were rebounding from a long walk in the desert under the leadership of Bill Curry, now led by an unknown football coach named Hal Mumme (and his equally unknown offensive coordinator, Mike Leach).
The brightest spot in Cat football history since Bear Bryant spurned Kentucky for Texas A&M in 1953 and the most highly rated prep star to ever come from the bluegrass, Tim Couch was the new quarterback for Kentucky that day. After a season on Curry's bench, Couch walked into the Cards' new den and torched the rivals in a 68-34 spanking that changed the trajectory of Bluegrass football.
Kentucky would enjoy a mini-revival under Couch and Mumme, heading to New Year's Day bowls for the first time in years before it all crumbled under NCAA sanctions. Louisville remained bowl eligible but languished in bowls like the Humanitarian and Motor City.
Five years later, new Cards coach Bobby Petrino drubbed the favored Cats as the Cards continued a rocket climb into nine straight bowl games, climaxing with a BCS Orange Bowl in '07.
During those high-flying years the Cards were led by local products Brian Brohm and Michael Bush, dominating in-state recruiting. Their brethren in Lexington circled the drain of NCAA sanctions, losing to teams like Ohio University.
There is a long held belief in Kentucky, where NCAA FBS prospects don't grow on trees, that Kentucky and Louisville cannot both be "up" at once. Thus, the winner of the recruiting battles for in-state players like Couch and Brohm rise to the top and, in turn, push their rivals back under water.
Kentucky and Louisville each head into this season with a new coach. For the Cards, it's highly regarded Charlie Strong, former longtime Florida Gator defensive coordinator.
For Kentucky, it's native son Joker Phillips, a former Cat player who has directed the offense, under Rich Brooks, through Kentucky's best ever run in football with four straight bowl games and a top-10 upset of LSU via the arm of Kentucky product Andre' Woodson two years ago.
Can both teams rise to the top? History says no.
Here's a look at arguments for each coach being the first one to a BCS game. Weigh your opinions and vote accordingly in our poll. As always, vote early and often.
The Stability Factor
Though Phillips is a new head coach, the highly respected staff at Kentucky, with the exception of new position coaches added for recruiting prowess, has remained intact for years. This has allowed Kentucky to refine offensive and defensive systems while building mini-pipelines for recruiting into South Carolina and parts of Georgia that the school has never enjoyed.
These are the reasons the number of stars by names of Kentucky commitments on recruiting sites is going up.
The History Factor
Kentucky has been to four straight bowls, giving recruits a reason to pay attention, but recent achievements of Cardinal football are not far away, despite former head coach Steve Kragthorpe's best efforts.
Louisville became "hot" to local talent in the 2000s under Petrino and is only three years removed from a BCS game. Local kids remember the excitement of finally seeing a bluegrass team play in a bowl game that really mattered and jumped on the Cardinal bandwagon.
Advantage: Tie. Kentucky's more recent Music City/Liberty Bowl streak matches but does not surpass Cards' recent trip to the Orange Bowl.
The Competition Factor
Yes, Big East football is entertaining in a "cute" Arena League sort of way, but it can't compare to the competition of SEC Saturdays. The trouble is, in Lexington there's not been much competition in conference play. Kentucky's run of bowl games, with a few exceptions, is built on annual wins against out of conference mid-majors and the two worst SEC teams on their conference schedule.
Kids want to play in the SEC, but most of all, they want to win there. Until Kentucky breaks the losing streaks to Florida and Tennessee (now at 24 and 25 years respectively), no one outside of Lexington takes them seriously.
On the other hand, Louisville showed that a game or two against big names (like Florida State in 2007) paired with a dominant Big East record can land them in BCS range without breaking too much of a sweat.
The "IT" Factor
When Phillips walks into a recruit's house, he has Music City and Liberty Bowl rings and the "I'm from Kentucky" speech for local boys. Charlie Strong has two BCS title rings plus connections to the legacy of the Gators. Those rings, Florida recruiting connections, and the mounds of respect he gets from national media and the coaching fraternity gives him an edge over Joker in ESPN face time.
If Lane Kiffin taught us anything—and it was very little—it was that it matters how often your name appears on ESPN, no matter the reason. There's a reason that five of seven highly rated Kentucky high school products in the 2011 class are committed to the Cards.
Plus, The Ville's 2010 recruiting class, assembled in only a few weeks, was rated near or above the Cats' class, assembled over a few years. Have I mentioned that, in Kentucky, in-state recruits matter?
The "Here and Now" Factor
Phillips' Cats should be favored in this year's battle for the Governor's Cup. He has a lot of talent returning in Randall Cobb and Derrick Locke, a lot of goodwill, and is facing what may be the weakest SEC East in years.
The Cards are down in talent and don't have a lot of reason to expect much improvement this year. Strong has a little honeymoon time here, but Joker needs to dominate the Cards on the field and the recruiting trail ASAP. He should, at least, do the first.
Both programs appear headed in the right direction, and there's no reason to believe they can't both be somewhat successful at the same time, but history shows that only one bluegrass team at a time tends to play meaningful games on New Year's Day or later. That makes 2010 a make or break season in Kentucky college football.
Which ol' Kentucky home is most likely to have a BCS trophy shining brightly in years to come? You tell me—vote in our poll.
(Visit me at kentuckyvols.com and follow me on Twitter: @kyvolunteer)
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