Perception trumping reality in college football has been a running theme here lately for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that it's a completely accurate assessment of an unfair phenomenon that directly impacts Louisville football.
It's also a phenomenon that leads me to say this: Beating Kentucky on Saturday is about more than just bringing the Governor's Cup home for a third straight year.
At the risk of placing a "Louisville Doesn't Exist" joke on a tee (on Rivalry Week, no less), Cardinal football is about to disappear. After Saturday, U of L's next three weeks will consist of a noon home game against an abysmal FIU team that will only be seen locally, a bye week, and then a road trip to Temple to face arguably the worst team in the AAC.
After Saturday, the average college football fan will not watch a live second of Louisville football until the Cards host Rutgers on Oct. 10. For all intents and purposes, U of L football will exist only in 30 second highlight packages and bottom line score scrawls.
More so than any other stretch on the schedule, this is the danger period for Cardinal football's already extremely slim national title hopes. Teams are going to leap-frog the Cards, national pundits are going to rev up their shots at Louisville's schedule, and U of L fans are going to be furious. Just brace yourselves, it's going to happen.
The good news, or at least the potentially good news, is that the Cards have a golden opportunity to leave a lasting impression heading into this period.
College football's third week has been synonymous with showcase games for decades now. Whether it's been Florida/Tennessee, Notre Dame/Michigan or LSU/Auburn, week three always seems to feature at least one contest that captivates the nation and signifies the start of the meat of the college football season.
Obviously, the previous paragraph sets the stage for a mention of Alabama/Texas A&M, this year's week three game which has drawn "regular season game of the decade" and other ridiculous talk since before the season even started. Regardless of whether or not the hype is deserved or whether or not the game lives up to it, literally millions of people are excited about it, and literally millions of people are going to tune into it.
And what do really excited football fans do to kill time before they watch the football game they're really excited about? They watch other football games. This is where Louisville/Kentucky landing the noon slot on ESPN could be much more of a boon than we gave it credit for at the time.
Here are the other noon games on national television this week:
UCLA vs. Nebraska (ABC)
Tulsa vs. Oklahoma (ESPN2)
Indiana vs. Bowling Green (ESPNU)
Army vs. Stanford (CBS Sports Network)
Virginia Tech vs. East Carolina (Fox Sports 1)
Western Illinois vs. Minnesota (Big Ten Network)
Akron vs. Michigan (Big Ten Network)
There's not much there to attract college football-starved viewers away from the highest-ranked team in the time slot (Louisville) and the highest-profile player in the time slot (Teddy Bridgewater).
The long and short of it is this: a lot of people are going to be watching Louisville play football on Saturday. With U of L's schedule being the way it is and the period of power conference clash after power conference clash on the horizon, this is an opportunity the Cardinals can't afford to squander.
As much as we rip on them for constantly bringing it up, Kentucky is associated with some of the best programs in college football...even if that association is that they're always losing to them. Still, it's an association that, fairly or unfairly, makes a win over the Wildcats count for more perception-wise than a win over a team like Ohio, even if the product the Bobcats put on the field is superior.
A decisive, nationally-televised win over Kentucky on the biggest Saturday of the college football season so far won't be enough to shut all of Louisville's critics up, but I don't think there's any question that it will help. Heading into a nearly month-long stretch where they won't be heard from, the Cards need to make their most recent memory stick out and persist.
Everyone knows that Louisville's schedule has left it with very few chances to make an unavoidable national statement, but that type of opportunity will be present on Saturday. It's on the guys in red and white to take advantage.