University of Louisville and University of Kentucky football teams will meet for the 25th time this Sunday.
It’s the season opener for two teams facing a different set of challenges.
In Louisville, there are high expectations for coach Charlie Strong’s Cardinals. In his third season since he was hired away from Florida to turn around a program that faltered for three years under previous coach Steve Kragthorpe, Strong’s team is ranked 25th in the AP pre-season poll, and is favored to win the Big East Conference title.
Strong’s first two teams each went 7-6 with appearances in the Beef O’Brady’s and Belk bowls and last year won a share of the conference title. The Cards are back with 18 starters from last year’s squad, including highly touted sophomore quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.
Strong downplays the pre-season hype made scant mention of it during training camp. He calls it blocking out the noise.
“It doesn’t matter where people rank you,” Strong said. “About two weeks ago, I put up a sheet in a team meeting, and I talk about teams that have been ranked, and where they started the season and where they ended the season. And very few teams that are ranked number one end up number one and very few teams in the top 25 end up in the top 25.”
It’s a different kind of noise that Joker Phillips is trying to block out in Lexington.
Some Wildcat fans have been grumbling about his first two seasons on the sidelines and season ticket sales are down.
A former UK player and assistant, Phillips inherited a program from the retiring Rich Brooks that had been to four straight bowl games and at one point was ranked in the top 10.
Phillips took the Wildcats to a bowl game in 2010, but UK finished with a losing record, and stumbled to a 5-7 record and no bowl appearance last season.
UK Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart says he hasn’t set a win-loss threshold that needs to be met for Phillips to keep his job, but he expects to see progress.
Phillips says he knows this is a critical time but he’s excited about the upcoming season, noting that Kentucky ended last year on a high note, snapping a 26-year losing streak to Tennessee, and he hopes the momentum will carry over into the season opener at Louisville.
“It’s an important game, and I hear how important it is for us. But I guarantee they’re saying the same thing up the road also. It’s an important game. Everybody’s first game is important. Think it’s not important down at Alabama, Georgia, or wherever. It’s an important game to set the tempo and set the tone for the season,” Phillips said.
Phillips says he has a lot of talented returning players, including sophomore quarterback Maxwell Smith, and they’re behind his plan to improve this season.
UK senior center Matt Smith says there’s more of a sense of unity on this year’s squad, a chemistry that developed in the off-season, with senior players urging teammates to spend less time in cliques, based on position.
“We kind of took it on ourselves to become the coaches and kind of get everybody caught up and get on the same page so we can just hit the ground running when we hit fall camp,” he said.
The Cards and the Cats will meet Sunday afternoon at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium.
U of L won last year’s game in Lexington and is favored this year. The Cards haven’t beaten Kentucky at home since 2006.
Forecasters say there’s the potential for heavy rainfall during the game, as the remnants of Hurricane Isaac move through the region.
U of L defensive tackle Brendan Dunn says that won’t be a problem.
Coach Strong always said ‘If it rains, it rains, and if it don’t, it don’t.’ And if you go out here and play, we’ve still got to go execute.
Sunday’s kickoff is 3:30pm.