Do a team's expectations factor into a football game? I kept asking myself this as the various pundits made their preseason predictions. I wondered how much athletes read publications like Phil Steele's magazine or ESPN's blogs. Then media day happened. It had been so long since Louisville was picked to finish at the top of the league that I forgot how many times reporters asked the same question: "How do you handle the expectations this season?". As the preseason articles and interviews continued to pop up it became obvious that the narrative for this matchup would be the high expectations for Louisville versus the low of the Wildcats.
Louisville is in the AP top 25 for the first time since 2007. That ranking teamed with a 14 point spread have left some of our fans pretty confident. But should we be? Kentucky was favored to win last year. They played the game at Commonwealth stadium and Louisville hadn't won in five years. But we pulled of the upset anyway. Louisville fans also seem to have forgotten that without a critical strip of Demarco Robinson by reserve cornerback Stephan Robinson, the game could have easily gone the other way. I'm not trying to be negative but preseason predictions are just that. Predictions.
I'm not saying that I think the game will go the same way as last year. But it should be noted that it could. But the real question is how do these predictions effect the players. Collins Ukwu stated that when Teddy Bridgewater entered the game last year that the defense thought it would be a "cake walk". Doubt he felt that way after Teddy found DeVante Parker in the end zone a short time later. But the core point is the expectation. His expectation was that a true freshman quarterback couldn't beat them. I'm sure a lot of card fans, including myself, don't expect a true sophomore quarterback that hasn't done much won't beat us either. Does Daniel Brown think the same way Ukwu did last year? I would hope not. But these are young guys that, no matter how good their coaches are, tend to get a little too hyped up. If, and it's a big if, Louisville is chugging the kool-aid that the media, fans, and friends are serving them, it's possible they might not be focused come Sunday.
Kentucky is an underdog in this game as it should be. It's defense is just as young as Louisville's was last year and it's offense was disturbingly bad as well. The coaching staff has tried to convince anyone that will listen that it will be more talented this year. I'm not buying it, but Ryan Tydlacka is. They say the linebackers will be faster. The secondary will be more athletic. The receiving core has more playmakers. But it's hard to believe when these guys couldn't crack the lineup for a bad team a year ago. But the players have accepted the underdog role. Players have steadfastly stood by the idea that other people's predictions don't mean anything. The belief that you can win means a lot but it takes coaching and leadership to really pull off a big upset. It also takes talent mixed with an opponent that doesn't respect you to get you over the hump. A handful of Cardinal players have shown their lack of respect for the UK football program but after Mario Benavides took to Twitter to call out the guys that were doing so, things have died down. Louisville players seemed to be more focused on what their coaches are teaching them. But did they give Kentucky enough ammo already?
Obviously Kentucky has leaders just like Louisville does. Playing in a rivalry game is all about staying focused and being humble. Great teams have a swagger about them, but they also don't make mistakes. Kentucky's lack of experience could play such a huge role in this game. Louisville started three players on defense that lacked experience last year and four on offense. That balance of leadership helped Louisville a lot. Their were upperclassmen at every position that could take on a leadership role. They had been there before. But for UK every player lining up at the linebacker position will be playing together for the first time. Who takes charge? Who keeps the defense focused and calm? Better yet, who fires them up? Kentucky might need big plays to get the troops going. They didn't have that on either side of the ball last year, so why should we expect it now?
The setting of this game can get to a players head very quickly. Louisville's approach seems to be to block out the hype, while UK's is to own the underdog distinction. We will see which teams approach is fake juice, and which is real in a few days.