In news that seemingly came out of nowhere (seriously, how crazy is it in this day and age that there were zero rumblings about this?), the Louisville/Kentucky football series will be moving to the last game of the regular season beginning in 2014.
Now let me preface all this by saying that in my ideal world, the game would still be played as the season-opener each and every year. I think it captivates the Commonwealth during the dead of summer and is still the best showcase opportunity for two programs that exist below the first tier of the college football hierarchy.
That said, there's a lot to like about this move, namely the first item in this pros and cons showdown...
PRO: Big-time college football programs play their arch-rivals in the last game of the regular season
Ohio State/Michigan, Army/Navy, Florida/Florida State, South Carolina/Clemson, Georgia/Georgia Tech; the sport's best rivalries all fall on the final weekend of the regular season for a reason. There will be no more "if we'd played later in the year" smack talk from either side, and that's going to be refreshing. For the foreseeable future, each team will be facing the other with the maximum amount of experience possible for a regular season showdown.
This how college football rivalries are supposed to be.
CON: It doesn't fit perfectly with Louisville's move to the ACC
Beating Kentucky is a big deal, but it's never going to be on par with playing for a conference title or a spot in a BCS game.
If Louisville locks up an ACC divisional title in the 11th game of the season, that's when playing UK in the regular season finale is going to become inconvenient. The most obvious concern is a key player or some key players being injured the week before a more important game. The second is the emotional toll that not just the game, but the entire week takes out of you. It's not an ideal scenario heading into what would be at least an equally emotional week and game.
PRO: Thanksgiving weekend = football
No holiday is more synonymous with a sport than Thanksgiving is with football. Louisville going up against Kentucky two days after Turkey Day is something that gives me goosebumps just thinking about it. My guess is most of you feel the same way.
Some people will complain about the colder temperatures, but I think getting all bundled up and hitting the parking lots outside PJCS with leftover Turkey and stuffing is as close to football Heaven as you can get in this state. I'm already tailgating for November 29, 2014 in my mind.
CON: It could interfere with basketball
There's a strong possibility that this move will result in a change in the way both basketball programs schedule. The problem with that is that college basketball's biggest early season basketball tournaments (Maui, Atlantis, etc.) are all played on Thanksgiving week/weekend.
Remember how draining the UConn/Duke and UConn/Butler doubleheaders were the past two years? Imagine that scenario with Kentucky involved. It'd all be a little too much.
PRO: The series will continue
The most obvious pro, and one which probably should have kicked off this post.
This provides some serious stability for a series that has endured constant threats of plug-pulling for the better part of the last two decades. I'd rather play Kentucky in the middle of July or on Christmas Eve than not play them at all.
CON: The basketball and football games being less than a month apart might cause the state to spontaneously combust
On one hand, if Louisville were to ever lose to Kentucky in football, knowing that a shot at redemption in basketball is just around the corner would be comforting. On the other, I think it's good when a rivalry win or loss has some time to fester; it makes it mean more. On a space creature third hand, owning or losing complete rivalry bragging right for an entire year during that magical time between Thanksgiving and New Year's is about as extreme a risk/reward situation as I can think of.
The holidays are going to become exponentially more intense starting in about 15 months.
PRO: There will always be something to play for at the end of the season for both teams
As unpleasant as it may be to imagine, there may come a time when a Louisville football season doesn't go as planned and the mighty Cardinals get knocked around a little bit. Should a Kragthorpian year occur, there will still always be something to look forward to, a reason for the more casual fans to remain invested, an opportunity to end the season on a particularly high note. The same goes for the other side.
CON: The odds of the teams squaring off at full strength are considerably lower
Football is a violent game. Injuries happen. Obviously, this makes the odds of a team being at full strength come week 12 considerably less than they would be in week one or week three. In exchange for the injury risk, both sides receive a drastically heightened level of experience. Classic quid pro quo.
PRO: The third week game will finally be gone
Playing the game in the first week versus playing it on the last week is a legitimate debate. Putting the third week game up against either of those dates is not.
Put eloquently: years when the game has been played on the third week have sucked. I think both sides have pretty much come to an agreement on that. Not only does it take away from the summer hype that is present in years when the game is the season-opener, but it creates all of those annoying "how hard is it not to look ahead?" storylines...and it also creates some legitimate looking ahead.
I don't think anyone will miss the game being played in mid-September.
CON: Getting national attention will be more difficult
The final two weekends of the regular season are for big-time college football. Louisville and Kentucky moving their rivalry game is a nice statement for the direction that both programs are hoping to keep moving towards, but let's not act like national college football fans (or networks) are going to immediately shift their focus from Florida/Florida State or Georgia/Georgia Tech to the Cards and the Cats.
The series has found a nice niche with Labor Day Weekend. It's a flexible weekend without a lot of top-level competition where the game can be played on Saturday or Sunday and get a national audience on ESPN or ABC. That won't be the case going forward.
For Louisville/Kentucky to compete with the other games on the final weekend of the regular season and earn a national audience, both teams are going to have to achieve some success and sustain it. Kentucky has never gone into the Battle for the Governor's Cup with a national ranking, and Louisville has only done so five times in 19 years (modern era). That has to change.
You want to be a big-time college football rivalry that people want to watch on a big-time college football weekend? You're going to have to earn it, and it's going to take both sides pulling their weight.