Louisville and Kentucky have played annually for 20 years now. In those 20 years we've seen a lot. Two decades of early season battles between beloved players and teams that mattered very little to folks outside our region. We've seen Louisville move conferences not once, but twice and win two BCS bowls. We've seen Cardinals fans raise the money to get a new stadium built. We've also seen it expanded. We saw the program fall flat on its face under Ron Cooper and Steve Kragthorpe, only to be reborn by John L. Smith, Bobby Petrino, and now Charlie Strong.
In Lexington, we saw the 'Cats never succeed in getting out of SEC cellar, but we did get the Hal Mumme era, the top overall pick in the NFL Draft, the end of the horrible streak to Tennessee, a win over the eventual national champion, a visit from College Gameday. Unfortunately for them, we also saw the heartbreaking loss to LSU on a hail mary, we saw Guy Morriss leave after two years for Baylor of all places, we saw probation, we saw Bill Curry trying to run the option with Tim Couch, we saw that Doering's got a touchdown, and we saw crowds of less than 20,000 at the end of 2012.
What we've never seen for Louisville and Kentucky is both teams have first class coaching staffs, players that could play for any other team in the country at their respective positions, and teams that draw interest outside our region. By all means, we've seen good teams and we've seen great, great players. We've even seen good coaches. But we've never been able to have sustained periods of time where both programs excelled simultaneously.
Somehow, I imagine most fans of both Louisville and Kentucky came away from Saturday's game unhappy with how it played out. Kentucky fans seeing so many missed opportunities, Louisville fans seeing a sluggish start that kept them from making an impression with a more emphatic win.
What I saw was, for the first time perhaps ever in this rivalry, were teams that are well-coached. Teams that played with incredible effort. Teams that both have players that could play for any team in the country. You think Florida wouldn't mind having DeVante Parker right now? You think Pitt could benefit from having JoJo Kemp? Teddy Bridgewater, despite the first quarter which saw him a bit rattled and erratic (by his standards) is the best quarterback in college football. Avery Williamson could play for any defense in the SEC.
We've grown accustomed to games in this series that are lopsided because the other team is both unskilled and poorly prepared. We've come to see an excellent performance as pouncing on the other at their most hapless. Kentucky catching Louisville asleep so Stevie can get loose, Louisville only throwing two incomplete passes in a game last year where Kentucky could barely line up correctly.
Today was excellent football, mistakes notwithstanding. Kentucky is better coached than it has ever been defensively. The 'Cats didn't line up out of position or do too much (like they did in the opener). They kept Louisville from breaking the big play. They played with great discipline until the lack of depth and talented players simply gave way to Louisville's superior players.
All teams, good and bad, make mistakes. Dropped passes, errant throws, missed assignments. They happen. Both teams made them today. But neither team gave the game away today. No, Louisville and Kentucky both gave their absolute best and as Vegas suggested, Louisville's absolute best was two touchdowns better than Kentucky's absolute best at home. It's probably the last time for a while that the disparity will be that large, and that's a good thing.
Beginning next year, the Governor's Cup will become a winter rivalry, instead of a summer one. June billboards won't matter because the game won't answer any questions in just a few weeks. There will be no more sun dresses and sweaty tailgates. Now the game will follow extremely tough conference seasons for both (instead of just Kentucky in most years). It will depend more on which team is deepest and can get to December healthiest rather than who can spend the summer focusing most. But most importantly, with the recruiting classes both schools have lined up and continue to work on, with the young players like Charles Gaines, Jason Hatcher, BJ Dubose, Ryan Timmons, Keith Brown, Javess Blue, and Lorenzo Mauldin that all have more Governor's Cup battles ahead of them, and what appears to be outstanding coaching staffs, the future of this game is brighter than it has ever been.
We've seen good games, but we've rarely, if ever, seen great games between great players. On Saturday afternoon, we saw reason to believe we'll finally see it.