I love SEC football. I record the games each week and watch them all, devouring every play call, every down. Because of my passion for all SEC football, I feel that I can discuss each team objectively, despite being a die-hard Kentucky fan that will bleed blue until the day I die. However, when it comes to schools that reside elsewhere; I have little use for them. Occasionally, I will watch the Red River Shootout, or a few of the other intense rivalries, but for the most part it’s all SEC, all the time. The most unwatchable of the BCS conferences is by far the Big (L)East, which manages to finish behind non-BCS schools in end-of-season conference rankings year-after-year. In the SEC, college football is a religion. In the Big Least, it’s a 4th option on Thursday nights.
However, there is one Big Least game I have to watch each year and it’s the annual in-state rivalry game between my beloved Kentucky Wildcats and the Louisville Cardinals (also known as the “Harvard of South Floyd Street” to current students and alumni). Before I discuss the different units on each team, let me state that the Cardinals have, without a doubt, the most ignorant fan base in all of college athletics. Brad Wilkerson discussed this with some detail earlier this summer, but it cannot be emphasized enough. I’ve been a visiting fan in almost every city in the SEC, spent time in places like the Old College Inn in Knoxville and always have been able strike up an intelligent football conversation with groups of rival fans. This is an impossible feat within the Louisville city limits. Intelligent conversation is an oxymoron when you hit the local sports bars and the only discussions which last longer than 15 seconds are about the 2007 Orange Bowl. UL fans ignore the current state of the “program” use their appearance and victory in the lowest-rated BCS Bowl in history as a crutch for any football-related discussion. It’s gotten to the point where every time I see an orange at the grocery, I get an instant migraine. For all you Georgia fans thinking about making the road trip for UGA vs. the Cards in 2012, prepare yourself for the absurdly irrational fans and a poorly designed stadium that has enough corporate logos to make you think you’re at Nascar race. After the game, you’ll be calling every Florida fan you know to say “Hey, you all aren’t as bad as I thought.” Personally, I’d advise you wait until the first Saturday in May and come up for the Derby….
Drew hit the five must know facts before the game earlier this week, but I am going to dig a little deeper and compare the different units for each team and discuss some key players and positions.
Louisville Offense: Coach Strong recently named Adam Froman as his guy to start the season at quarterback. His statistics from 2009 aren’t horrendous, but Froman was 2-5 as a starter last season and threw just as many interceptions as he did touchdowns (five) while completing 60 % of his passes (91/150). The Louisville front line has some good experience, with four seniors starting and heralded sophomore Mario Benavides at center. The OLine has 51 starts between them but allowed three sacks per game last year and just a 3.7 yards-per-rush average. UL is thin at the WR spot, having lost two of the top five receivers from 2009 (Scott Long and Trent Guy), but return a couple experienced ball catchers in WR Doug Beaumont and TE Cameron Graham. In 2009, Louisville had a running back by committee philosophy, with Victor Anderson, Bilal Powell and Darius Ashley all putting up similar stats. Since Ashley was moved to defensive back, it will be up to the Anderson and Powell to shoulder most of the load. Both guys are on the Doak Walker watch list for the top NCAA running back and have lofty expectations this season. Powell and Anderson are guys that have decent speed and could make trouble for the Cats if they find holes in the defensive line. Louisville’s offense is light-years away from anything resembling an SEC team, but it should field a decent squad that keeps them in a few games against other lowly Big Least teams, but not against the Cats on Saturday.
Kentucky Offense: Mike Hartline recently got the starting nod at quarterback after a battle with Morgan Newton and Ryan Mossakowski throughout spring and fall camps. Hartline is a senior with the most experience, but I wouldn’t be shocked to see Newton on the field at times in the “Wildcat” formation. When you think of the Kentucky offense, it begins with WR Randall Cobb and RB Derrick Locke. Last season, the pair combined for 731 receiving yards, 1548 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns, not counting special teams. These two are the engine that powers the UK offense and a key to the season is both remaining healthy. Cobb and Locke will give the Louisville defense fits all day as they both have great speed with an array open-field moves to avoid tacklers. Chris Matthews will line up opposite of Cobb and is expected to be a big threat this season. The offensive line lost five players with a combined 123 starts, but there is enough talent waiting to step in where the Cat’s won’t experience too much of a drop off in production. The UK offense should eviscerate the Louisville D and Hartline will have the opportunity to perfect his hand off as the UK ground game dominates the play calling.
Louisville Defense: Louisville’s defense was atrocious in 2009 and it doesn’t look to make any great leaps this season under Charlie Strong. He may have coached a top-five defense in Gainesville, but the Ferrarri is still parked in Urban’s garage. Strong inherited the keys to Kragthorpe’s 1998 Kia in Louisville, and it has transmission problems. Opponents made 43 trips to the red zone against Louisville last year and scored 37 times (86%). Louisville lost their top four tacklers but bring back six starters from the 2009 squad that allowed their opponents 371 ypg and 26.2 ppg, including defensive “star” senior Johnny Patrick, fresh off his arrest this summer for assault. With inexperience at virtually every position, it’s difficult to imagine how the Cards manage to contain Kentucky’s dynamic duo of Cobb and Locke. Look for Kentucky to run the ball, then run the ball, then run the ball some more.
Kentucky Defense: Kentucky has developed some depth on the defensive line, but will rely heavily on seniors Ricky Lumpkin and DeQuin Evans as they attempt to stop the rush, where UK gave up 183 ypg in 2009. And, of course, DE Taylor Wyndham, famous for concussing Tebow, returns and hopes to build on a successful freshman campaign. UK lost a great deal of talent at linebacker with the departure of Micah Johnson and Sam Maxwell, but Danny Trevathan brings experience with six starts at WLB in 2009. Ronnie Sneed and Qua Huzzie are still battling it out for the MLB starting spot. The secondary has some experience with Randall Burton and Winston Guy, but are young unit. It will take a lot of work to make up for the departure of Trevard Lindley, who helped make the UK passing defense 17th in the nation last year at 177 ypg. A number of guys who have seen playing time over the past couple seasons, along with a few newcomers, will be first-time starters this year and how they perform on the big stage will be the key to Kentucky’s season. Having said that, performing against the equivalent of a second-rate high school team from the Big Least is not the same as battling with SEC powerhouses each week, and the Cats should manhandle the Cards on Saturday. I predict Mychal Baily has a break out game and becomes a force for the rest of the season at free safety.
Louisville Special Teams: UL lost Special Teams Mr. Everything Trent Guy and hopes Anderson and Beaumont can pick up his slack with punt and kick returns. K Chris Philipot has a strong leg, which will come in handy, as I predict UL will be attempting a lot of field goals this season.
Kentucky Special Teams: UK workhorses Cobb and Locke anchor the return teams, both having a special teams touchdown last season. Punter Ryan Tydlacka returns as the starter and everyone had high hopes for kicker Joe Mansour, but he did not make the PAT\FG depth chart.
Final Thought: Kentucky has a clear advantage over Louisville at virtually every offensive and defensive position, with the x-factor will being first-time head coach Charlie Strong’s playbook. Adrenaline will be pumping on both sides of the ball come Saturday, but the Cats take down the Filthy Cards in Papa John’s Stadium as Kentucky racks up 200+ yards on the ground as the Legend of Cobb continues to grow. Final Score: 34-10