We'll wax poetic about the otherworldly importance of Sunday's game later on in the week, but for today I thought we'd focus on what has become the indubitable theme of this year's game: no one knowing what the hell is going to happen.
It's not quite "'80s Night" or "Librarians and Barbarians," but it seems to be generating a decent amount of buzz.
So let's join the party by tackling the ten biggest questions hanging over the '08 Battle for the Governor's Cup.
1. What's Kentucky's deal at quarterback? Mike Hartline? Isn't he the dude who ran back punts for Ohio State?
Nope. Brian Hartline returns punts for OSU, his brother Mike is the sophomore starting quarterback for Kentucky, and probably the single most important question mark in a game chock-full of them.
Hartline will take the field on Sunday as the proud owner of a career passing stat line of 4-of-6 for 34 yards with no touchdowns and one interception. He came to Kentucky with a reputation as a big kid with a big arm and surprising speed, but reports of his struggles during fall camp have resulted in supplementary reports of true freshman Randall Cobb - expected to be utilized solely as a wide receiver and kick returner before Curtis Pulley's dismissal - getting increased reps under center.
Louisville has had its fair share of issues controlling athletic quarterbacks in recent years (hi Pat White, hi Marcus Vick, hi Middle Tennessee State guy whose name I can't remember), so seeing Cobb running a little option is probably a safe bet, even if Hartline is relatively effective on Kentucky's first three or four drives.
Even with U of L's pre-GovCup secondary struggles a year ago, and even with one of the top quarterbacks in program history running the show, Joker Phillips elected not to take a lot of deep shots early on in last year's game. The Cats instead got Rafael Little and the running game going, and took the easy six or seven yards through the air that the Louisville secondary was giving it.
It's become almost commonplace for offensive coordinators with inexperienced quarterbacks to call for deep passes early on in big games in an attempt to help alleviate nerves, but I'd be surprised if we see that on Sunday, if only because it isn't in keeping with Phillips' style over the last couple of years. Hartline will spend the game's opening minutes handing the ball off and looking for Dicky Lyons and Demoreo Ford on stop and out routes, and then the coaching staff will assess his performance and react accordingly...or they'll run a flea-flicker on their first offensive play.
2. Is there one key to the game that stands out above all others?
Yup. Controlling the line of scrimmage.
Let's look at some stats from last year's classic:
Kentucky - 185
Louisville - 101
YARDS PER CARRY
Kentucky - 5.3
Louisville - 3.7
Kentucky - 3
Louisville - 2
And now a look at those same categories in the 2006 game:
Louisville - 363
Kentucky - 22
YARDS PER CARRY
Louisville - 6.6
Kentucky - 1.2
Louisville - 3
Kentucky - 1
And now 2005:
Louisville - 209
Kentucky - 47
YARDS PER CARRY
Louisville - 4.5
Kentucky - 1.7
Louisville - 7
Kentucky - 2
Kentucky actually did U of L a real favor by not running the ball any more than they did a year ago, especially in short-yardage situations, because the guys in blue were owning the trenches when the Cats were on offense. Garry Williams and Justin Jeffries absolutely dominated Brandon Cox, Peanut Whitehead, Mo Mitchell and company for four quarters, and the guys on the inside did a really good job of picking up the delayed blitzes coming from the middle (although so did every other team on the Cards' schedule). Lamar Myles made a whopping 22 tackles, but the fact that only .5 of those came behind the line of scrimmage is more evidence of effectiveness of the Wildcat offensive line.
Of course, U of L's offensive front five also had a pretty solid day. For the most part, Brian Brohm had enough time to find Harry Douglas, and Anthony Allen had ample space to maneuver, but there were a handful of instances where Ventrell Jenkins abused Mike Donoghue, and where Jeremy Jarmon and Corey Peters were able to get the best of their man.
3. So which squad has the better big men this year?
It's tough to say for sure, but I think you have to give the edge at the moment to Kentucky.
The aforementioned Jenkins, Jarmon and Peters are all back on the Wildcat defensive line, as is senior Myron Pryor, who has started games in each of his first three seasons in Lexington. This is probably the strongest overall unit either side can lay claim to.
Louisville center Eric Wood and left tackle George Bussey are both preseason All-American candidates, but question marks surround the trio of remaining starters, despite the fact that each was forced into significant action a year ago. Mark Wetterer and Jeff Adams are both enormous, but works in progress, and Abdul Kuyateh is talented, but was too penalty-prone towards the end of last season.
The Wildcat offensive line possesses about the same level of experience. Williams and Jeffries return at left and right tackle, respectively, and left guard Zipp Duncan also re-assumes a starting role. The biggest hole to fill is at center, where relative unknown Jore Gonzalez will look to serve as an adequate replacement to the graduated Eric Scott.
Earl Heyman and a healthy Adrian Grady head up a Cardinal front four which is experienced, but trying to rebound from a widely ineffective 2007.
4. Hunter Cantwell has been the man before, so it's ridiculous to expect him to show any signs of nervousness, right?
Eh. Cantwell has played in situations at least as big as the one he'll approach Sunday afternoon, but in each instance he's always known in the back of his mind that he was just keeping the seat warm for Brian Brohm. Even if you're starting a game as big as the Gator Bowl, or entering a game as big as the one against Miami in 2006, knowing that expectations are tempered due to your still active title of backup is a nice security blanket to have.
Regardless of talent, you also exit those situations with reviews that would have been markedly lower had you been the man listed above you on the depth chart. Had he gone 15-of-37 with three interceptions, I seriously doubt folks would have spent as much time talking about Brohm's toughness as they did praising Cantwell's.
Make no mistake about it, the feeling Hunter Cantwell will have when he takes the field on Sunday will be a foreign one, and because of that, none of us should overreact if No. 14 comes off a bit jittery in the game's opening minutes.
5. If the running game is that important, which team has the best horses?
Again, it's tough to say, but the most experienced horses will definitely be wearing blue.
Tony Dixon, Alfonso Smith and Derrick Locke each bring a degree of experience to the field that only Louisville's Brock Bolen can counter. Each averaged at least 5.5 yards per carry a season ago, with Locke, a sophomore, carrying the banner of leading returning rusher after a year in which he scampered for 521 yards and five scores on 92 carries. Each of the three possesses exceptional speed, and the ability to make plays in the passing game. The depth at the position makes relative lack of size a non-issue.
While Bolen is a pretty proven commodity, backfield mates Bilal Powell and Victor Anderson aren't even in the neighborhood of established. Powell's ability is undeniable, but last season was just his second as a running back, and even when he was taking over the game against Rutgers it was very apparent that he's an extremely raw talent with a lot to learn about what it takes to be an every down back. Anderson is a former prep superstar who has reportedly made great strides over the last year, but making predictions about the production of a guy who hasn't played a down of college football isn't a prosperous business.
While the potential of Powell and Anderson combined with the experience of Bolen has had Cardinal fans predicting a dominant ground attack for the last three months, there's no way to know how potent the mixture is actually going to be. And the news that the trio carried for just 60 yards on 27 attempts in Louisville's final scrimmage isn't exactly a catalyst for optimism.
6. If the quarterbacks are putting the ball where it needs to be, will anybody be able to complete the play?
There will be one proven wide receiver receiver on the field Sunday, this guy.
His dancing ability and propensity for dreaming about Georgia quarterbacks notwithstanding, Dicky Lyons Jr. is the single largest offensive threat on either roster. Despite this fact, his effectiveness against Louisville a year ago was limited due to the opponent's dedication to preventing the deep ball (at least for 59 minutes and 32 seconds), and he also only made two catches against the Cards in 2006. Of course both of those were for scores, including an 80-yard snag in the third quarter.
Louisville has had a great deal of success through the air against Kentucky in recent years, a trend it hopes to continue in 2008 despite a depleted receiving corps the likes of which the program hasn't seen in at least a decade. Four of U of L's top five receivers from a season ago are now being paid to play the game, and the team's three leading returning receivers (running backs and tight ends excluded) are either injured or no longer with the program.
The Wildcats did a great job of cutting off anything and everything up the sidelines in last year's game (see: first offensive play, and almost every ball thrown to Mario Urrutia), but the soft belly of their zone was severely exposed thanks almost entirely to the talents of Harry Douglas, who caught 13 passes for a whopping 223 yards. The Cards don't have a receiver anywhere near as talented or experienced as Douglas to throw to this weekend, but Doug Beaumont is a guy skilled and courageous enough to make a number of plays in the middle of the field.
You could throw out just about any prediction pertaining to the GovCup performance of Troy Pascley, DeMoreo Ford, Chris Vaughn, Kyrus Lanxter, Josh Chichester, Randall Cobb or Aaorn Boyd, and there isn't anyone out there who could make a superior objection.
7. Will the ESPN2 crew ruin the game for those not fortunate enough to have tickets?
No, but they'll certainly try.
8. Qué sobre las tight ends?
Both teams lost NFL talents and all-conference performers when Gary Barnidge and Jacob Tamme received their college diplomas, and now both are looking to replace those veterans with guys who are either green or still learning how to play a new position.
Fairdale High School product Maurice Grinter spent his first two seasons in blue at fullback, but now suddenly finds himself atop the Wildcat depth chart at tight end. He's always had the hands and athleticism to play the position, and has apparently become a polished enough blocker this offseason to make the coaching staff feel comfortable with him supllanting Tamme.
The backup at the position is junior T.C. Drake. The good news for Kentucky fans is that Drake caught a touchdown pass in last year's enormous win over eventual national champion LSU. The bad news is that it was his only catch of the season.
Louisville wishes it had that much experience at the position. Starter Pete Nochta saw the field six times as a freshman in 2007, mostly on special teams. He is expected to split time with Johnnie Burns, a senior who was a tight end this time a year ago.
9. Does anybody actually expect this "Red Out" thing to work?
10. Which head coach does this game mean more to?
Last year I sort of went against the grain and said that the game meant more to Kragthorpe than it did to Brooks, despite the fact that the latter was 0-4 against Louisville, while the former was a first-year head coach getting his first taste of the rivalry.
This year, well, I'm feeling a bit more vanilla. The game means about 9,000 times more to Kragthorpe than it does to Brooks.