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For a change, the Battle for the Governor’s Cup should be fun for Louisville

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Let’s embrace this rare position.

Kentucky v Louisville Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Ask a Kentucky fan what their greatest memory of the football rivalry series with Louisville is, and it won’t take long for you to get an answer.

“Well, there was Stevie got loose in 2007. We stormed the field. It was crazy.”

“Lamar may have won the Heisman last year, but he still fumbled, and he still lost to UK.”

“Tim Couch hung 68 on them in the first game at that new stadium.”

“I still think Dave Ragone is buried in the turf somewhere inside that place after the beating he took from our defense in ‘02.”

Since Louisville and Kentucky began playing one another annually in 1994, the Cardinals have won 14 of the 23 meetings between the teams. Still, picking a fondest memory is a tougher recall on the red side of the isle than it is the blue.

There’s a reason for that.

Since the year 2000, Louisville has entered its game against Kentucky as the favorite 12 times. Eight of those times, the Cardinals have been favored to win by double digits. Eight is also the number of times U of L has played UK while owning a national ranking. Kentucky, meanwhile, has never been ranked on Governor’s Cup day.

If you asked me to name my favorite win in the series, it wouldn’t be the 31-point beat down of what would wind up being a pretty good UK team in 2006. It wouldn’t be third string Lexington native Kyle Bolin coming out of nowhere to save the day in 2015 either. My favorite win over Kentucky came in 2011.

To the rest of the country, that September contest didn’t resonate much. It was a 24-17 slog between two average teams at Commonwealth Stadium, significant only for the fact that highly-touted freshman quarterback Teddy Bridgewater had been forced into action and had responded wonderfully.

The hope for the future that existed in Bridgewater’s beautifully fluttering TD pass to fellow freshman DeVante Parker was a big part of the reason the win meant so much to me, but it wasn’t the biggest. The biggest reason was that for the first time since I was a kid, Louisville had beaten Kentucky in a game where the Cardinals had more to gain than they had to lose.

When the rivalry first resumed in ‘94, the main objection from “big brother” fans in Lexington was that Kentucky could never benefit from an annual series with Louisville. The lowly Cardinals, meanwhile, were adding an SEC opponent that would bolster their profile both nationally and with area recruits.

Things didn’t exactly play out that way.

The hiring of John L. Smith in 1998 changed the direction of both Cardinal football and the Battle for the Governor’s Cup. Louisville won seven of its eight games against Kentucky between 1999 and 2006, a time period which also saw the program go from cute C-USA school with a fun offense, to a major conference program with a BCS bowl victory and two top 10 finishes. It also drastically diminished the importance, at least on paper, of toppling their biggest rival on an annual basis.

For the better part of the last two decades, the risk/reward inherent in the Kentucky game for Louisville has been one of fear/satisfaction. Beat the Wildcats and it feels good, but you’ve done what you were supposed to do. Lose, and you’ve been stripped of something significant.

Such was the case a year ago, when U of L’s Governor’s Cup loss cost the team a trip to the Orange Bowl. The 2002 season-opening loss ruined what had been the most hyped season in program history, and the ‘07 stunner derailed the Steve Kragthorpe era before it could ever really get on the tracks. Even in 2013, when Louisville won a 27-13 road game, the most noteworthy outcome of the contest was that Bridgewater’s Heisman Trophy campaign was dealt a crushing early blow because his statistics weren’t overwhelming.

Even though Louisville is going to walk onto Kroger Field as more than a touchdown favorite on Saturday, this still feels like a game where the Cardinals have every bit as much to gain as they have to lose.

Here’s why:

1) The revenge factor

Kentucky pulled, statistically, the biggest upset in the history of the rivalry last season. They then proceeded to make the biggest deal in the world about it for the next 12 months. From Lamar Thomas to Mark Stoops to the entire fan base; it’s been impossible for a Louisville fan not to know that the final score of last year’s game was 41-38 and that the home team did not win.

For the first time in six years, Louisville will be playing this game to bring the Governor’s Cup back, not to retain it. That’s not a welcome change, but it’s an exciting temporary feeling.

2) The chance to dispel the “Kentucky’s progress” storyline

For the first time since the contest moved to the last week of the regular season, Louisville enters this game without owning a better overall record than Kentucky. Both teams are 7-4, and both fan bases feel very differently about that position.

Ever since the Clemson game, this U of L season has been labeled as some variation of a “missed opportunity” for the Cardinal program. With one regular season game to go, the Cards have four losses despite playing a manageable schedule and being able to lay claim to one of the best college football players in recent memory. That’s disappointing.

Kentucky, meanwhile, has an opportunity to win eight regular season games for the first time since 1984. The Wildcats went 4-4 in the SEC and have spent the bulk of the year heaping praise on Mark Stoops for showing signs that the program can stay at this level or perhaps take an even larger step forward in the years to come.

A second straight Governor’s Cup victory solidifies this as a great year for UK, and builds a healthy dose of optimism for the program heading into the offseason. A loss to Louisville in the final game of the regular season drastically alters the perception of this season for Kentucky fans. It makes them look harder at the strength of the teams they beat and the opportunities they squandered.

For us, that’s fun.

3) Louisville doesn’t have all that much to lose here

Don’t get me wrong, I’d much rather be in the nervous position of heading into this game at 11-0 and with a potential trip to the College Football Playoff hanging in the balance. That said, there’s something freeing about heading into rivalry weekend knowing that you can’t really get hurt.

A loss to Kentucky would sting, because all losses to Kentucky sting, but it wouldn’t change Louisville’s bowl outlook, it wouldn’t knock the Cardinals from the national rankings, and it wouldn’t strip Lamar Jackson of a surefire Heisman Trophy. I hope that in 12 months U of L is back to entering this game with a significant amount to lose, but for now, I’m going to embrace the free and easy feel of it all.

For the first time in a long time, Louisville doesn’t have a whole lot to lose heading into the Battle for the Governor’s Cup. What it does have is an opportunity to deliver a resounding message to its chief rival:

Your sign of progress is still our cause for concern. Your best still doesn’t surpass our worst. Your growth isn’t good enough. I hope you enjoyed the last year, because this is still our state.

Let’s have fun with this. Go Louisville, beat Kentucky.