Deciphering the significance of a win like Louisville's toppling of West Virginia in 2006, or the Cards' victory in the Orange Bowl two months later isn't exactly a tall task. Pinpointing the gravity of prevailing in a game which will end up being little more than a scrolling score at the bottom of the television to 95% of the sports world is a bit more difficult.
A win by Louisville over Kentucky on Sunday won't make anywhere near the national splash the two victories mentioned above did. No one at USA Today is going to be writing about the program's meteoric ascension to national prominence, and no one on ESPN is going to be predicting an appearance in the BCS title game.
What a win by Louisville over Kentucky on Sunday will do is significantly raise - or at least not significantly lower - the likelihood of the Cardinals finding themselves again in the national spotlight at some point in the foreseeable future.
In relation to the significance of past high-profile wins over high-ranking opponents, it's a chicken/egg situation.
When Harry Douglas was dropped at the Kentucky 11-yard line and the Big Blue faithful stormed the field like they'd just won an SEC title, it was the commencement of the most tumultuous 12 months in the history of Louisville football (you say the '60s and '70s or the '98 season, I say Taco Bell tastes a lot worse after you've had Jeff Ruby's than it does after you've had Wendy's). What followed was five additional losses, a snapping of the nation's second-longest home winning streak at the hands of a 35-point underdog, extreme fan dissension, a missed postseason for the first time in a decade, multiple rumors of an embattled first-year head coach jumping ship, a pair of high-profile players declaring for early entry into the NFL Draft, a number of players transferring, a number of players suffering injuries and an even larger number of players being dismissed from the program.
And now here we are, sheltered by a thin, but calming, cloud of optimism as the Cards prepare to take the field against the hated rival that started all of this 11 and-a-half months ago.
Pundits can talk about the injuries, Tom Jurich can talk about lowered expectations, but let's face it, if the Wildcats are spending Sunday night parading around Papa John's Cardinal Stadium with the Governor's Cup in their possession for a second straight year, things are going to get ugly. It's not debatable.There is a large segment of the fan base which will go berserk the moment the clock hits zero. Some already have their rants memorized.
A loss to Kentucky would set the stage for perhaps the biggest no-win situation in the history of sports when Tennessee Tech comes to town on Sept. 6. Eleven more days of unrest would follow before the Cards would take the field with a chance to alleviate some of the bedlam by beating what should be a solid Kansas State squad. It would take 18 days for the wounds of Aug. 31 to begin to heal, and two and-a-half weeks is an eternity for any entity riddled with unrest.
An 0-1 start has never been the sole source of a disappointing season, but if this team can't beat what appears to be a below average SEC squad, in front of its home crowd, with revenge and so much else at stake, then there's really no reason to believe the loss won't have significant bearing on whether or not they receive an unwanted Christmas break for a second straight winter. Neither the fans nor the players are going to celebrate a Meineke Car Care Bowl invite with the same dynamism they greeted a Motor City Bowl bid with ten years ago, but they will accept it, and then raise expectations for the following year accordingly.
All anyone can hope for from this year's Louisville football season is signs of progress, however seemingly insignificant. The fan base needs to be reassured that what took place last year was a momentary fall from grace, and not the sudden and complete collapse of something which had appeared so sturdy just months before. Fear has supplanted anger as the communal emotion for a section of the Cardinal faithful.
It's a fear that has been elevated by recent developments in the world of recruiting. Since Andre Woodson found Steve Johnson wide open in Lexington last September, the top two high school football players in the city of Louisville have chosen to take their games to Ohio State, and a pair of highly rated quarterback recruits who had been interested in U of L have signed with Kentucky.
Now certainly the decisions of each of these young men was based on more than just one game, or even one below average season, but there is this quote from five-star prospect and UK signee Morgan Newton to consider.
"Originally we weren't really looking at Kentucky," Newton said. "We were looking at Louisville. We went down to Kentucky for that game, and it was a really good game, and we decided that Kentucky was a really nice place. We loved all the things that they were doing in Lexington."
As much as we neglect it here, recruiting really is the life blood of any program, and the game matters to these kids and to the families of these kids. Not in an absolute, all or nothing sort of way, but it matters.
I think it would be thoughtless to go any further without acknowledging that the enormity of what takes place on Sunday is not limited to one side. Kentucky is looking to prove that its program has turned a corner, its looking to build on its recent successes in the recruiting game, and its looking to pick up a valuable non-conference win before returning to the savage reality of life in the SEC. A post of equal length devoted entirely to the gargantuan ramifications this game has for the Wildcats would certainly be warranted.
Still, I don't think the level of consequence is quite even. Kentucky needed last year's game; Louisville really, really wanted it. And while the Cats really, really want to top their arch-rival for the second straight year, the Cards need to recapture the Governor's Cup.
For the coaches, the players, the fans and everyone else tied to the program, a win on Sunday has become a necessity.
Go Louisville, beat Kentucky.