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Countdown Q&A - Week 13, Kentucky Wildcats

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Middle Tennessee v Kentucky Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Lucky Week 13 has arrived for the Cards. Back in June I thought the Cards might be using this game as a bridge to…[swallows intensely]…getting eight wins, but in reality Louisville is staring their rival in the face with a high probability of finishing 2018 without a victory over a Power 5 opponent. That’s where we are, folks. In fact, the last Power 5 opponent the Cards defeated is none other than…the Kentucky Wildcats almost one full calendar year ago. We’ve been swimming in this pool of mediocrity for over three months and yet it still boggles my mind as to how we’ve wondered so far into the deep end. Last season UofL handled Kentucky from the opening kick and walked out of K-Rogers field with a 44-17 beatdown…my fear is we may somehow be facing an inverted score in a few short days.

This week I got a chance to chat it up with Chris Fisher from ‘CatsPause.com’ about the forthcoming ‘Battle of the Bluegrass’, the rivalry in general, and how Kentucky football has surprised more than a few folks this year on the gridiron…

Kentucky Wildcats (8-3; 5-3)

CS: Before we dive too deep into the Louisville v. Kentucky rivalry I wanted to get your take on the Kentucky season as whole. Most prognosticators on a national level knew Kentucky would have a chance to piece together a few wins with their schedule but I don’t think many saw the potential of posting a nine win season when they rolled the ball out against Central Michigan. Do you see this year as a success overall or a missed opportunity to take that next step up in the conference?

After the Central Michigan game, I was having a hard time finding six wins, honestly. So, to win eight regular season games for the first time since 1984 has to be considered a success by any statistical measure. I think the loss to Tennessee disappointed a lot of fans, but with a chance to win nine and possibly 10 games, I think it’s really hard to make the case that this season has been a disappointment. Plenty of Kentucky teams have been close but at the end of the day, wins matter. And even though they may not be the most aesthetically pleasing, I think this has to be considered the best UK team of my lifetime if they close the season strong on Saturday.

CS: Before the year began UK had a few question marks at key positions, but one of those was not at running back as Benny Snell had already established himself as a terror out of the backfield. The Cards saw firsthand last year how Stoops basically ran Snell into the ground against UofL until he finally just ran out of gas. Eleven games into the season Snell’s number of attempts and total yardage is on par with what we saw of him in 2017. Does the offense more or less live and die with his production?

Mississippi v Kentucky Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

In short, yes. Benny Snell is the guy that drives the bus. This isn’t an explosive offense by any stretch of the imagination so it relies on Snell to break off 5-10 yard chunks and keep Kentucky ahead of the chains. Everyone in the stadium knows UK wants to hand it to No. 26 and in the first half of the season, that didn’t matter. Over the last 5-6 games, however, it feels like UK’s offense is operating inside of a phone booth and it’s been harder and harder to bust Snell loose. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that as Snell’s production has dipped, so has Kentucky’s.

CS: I think the big surprise this year for most casual football fans, and likely many UK fans, was the overall defensive performance this season from the Cats. Currently fielding a Top 25 defensive unit is impressive in and of itself but teetering on the edge of a Top 10 ‘Scoring Defense’ nationally (16.8pt/g) has certainly turned some heads. What have Stoops and DC Matt House done to create such a quick turnaround from a team that was barely in the Top 100 defenses overall in 2017?

I think this season has been a perfect storm of sorts for Kentucky defensively. First of all, it helps to have maybe the best defensive player in the history of the program in Josh Allen. It begins and ends with him. Secondly, for the last couple years, the Wildcats have had some individual pieces at certain spots and some young talent. But this team has a great balance of talent, experience and playmakers at all three levels of its defense. As opposed to year’s past, there’s no real weak link. It’s just really solid all the way around.

CS: Okay Chris, now’s your chance. As a close observer (in proximity) of your rival’s program, performance, etc what are your thoughts about how the Cards 2018 season has unfolded? Think they had to make the move and let Petrino go?

NCAA Football: Louisville at Alabama John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Given the results of this season, the impending transfers, the decommitments and most importantly an opportunity to bring Jeff Brohm home, I don’t think there’s any question that Louisville had to make a change. Louisville has been historically bad this season, especially relative to its talent level and expectations so I think it’s pretty clear that the team had pretty much quit on the current regime. On the outside looking in, it’s been impressive to see Vince Tyra’s leadership and how he’s handled it. Making a change was a no brainer.

CS: Let’s close up shop on this Q&A and the season as a whole with a few quick ones, and possibly prove that a Louisville fan and a Kentucky fan can remain civil for an entire post and not resort to name-calling or rudimentary jokes about their rival…[can we get through four more questions without mentioning hookers….]

Cats will likely lose Snell and a few big pieces on defense this year. Is 2019 a small step back or does UK build on this momentum and once again compete for the East?

I think it’s only natural to expect at least a small step back after losing two of the best players in school history in Benny Snell and Josh Allen. That said, Kentucky has recruited well and there’s a lot of young talent in the program, especially on the defensive side of the ball. AJ Rose appears primed to take over Snell’s role in the backfield and I think Terry Wilson has done some good things at quarterback as a first-year starter. If he can take another step forward next season, I think there’s a good chance that Kentucky will again be bowl eligible and in the neighborhood of 6-8 wins, especially with what looks like a favorable 2019 schedule.

CS: The roundball Cats haven’t exactly come out guns blazing in 2018. Typical learning curve for the young bucks or were they slightly overrated heading into the year?

Kentucky has more experience than John Calipari’s teams typically do, but they’re still very inexperienced in the grand scheme of things. I think, per usual, the preseason hype machine created some unrealistic expectations, which came crashing down in the season-opening loss to Duke. Calipari’s teams typically get better as the season goes along and I think this team still has the opportunity and potential to play its way into becoming a legitimate Final Four contender.

CS: We’ve both got some whack-a-doos on either side of the rivalry but I’m genuinely curious as to why you think so many UK fans show up at Cardinal Stadium or the Yum! Center decked out in blue, even when UK is playing at the same time. Is it just a big troll job, or my theory is that there a secret underground UK fanclub that requires its members to attend “X” number of UofL games every year, with photographic evidence, in order to join?

Growing up in Louisville and attending the University of Kentucky, I am well-versed in the rivalry but there isn’t an underground society of UK fans required to attend Louisville games that I am aware of, haha. I think it’s just a good, old fashioned troll job on the part of some fans that has taken on a life of its own, kind of like the Washington State flag being represented at ESPN’s College GameDay every week. I do think a lot of fans on both sides of the aisle take it too far, but it wouldn’t be a rivalry without some of that fanfare and gamesmanship.

CS: And finally, because it’s wouldn’t count as an official internet Q&A unless I asked…what do you think happens Saturday night? Does “the rivalry” toss the W-L records out the window and we’ve got a barn burner in the 4th or do the Cats handle their business and make covering the 18.5 point spread appear like a walk in the park?

I think in a lot of ways, this game scares Kentucky fans to death. Normally, most of the pressure is on Louisville to win this game but the opposite is true this season. As bad as the Cardinals have been this season, they have a chance to spoil and really tarnish what has been a special Kentucky season and I think they’ll play that way. The 18.5-point spread is a lot for a team that a) doesn’t score a ton of points and b) has been dreadful against the spread under Mark Stoops. The emotion of the rivalry only lasts a couple possessions at most and I think the biggest factor will be how Louisville fares against the run. If they can contain Benny Snell, they can keep it close. If they defend the run like they have all season, I think Kentucky wins comfortably but either way, it’s hard for me to envision UK covering 18.5 points.

***

Huge thank you to Chris for indulging us with honest and well thought out answers and not dropping a single scandal reference during the whole post. Reward his maturity with a twitter follow here. Sure, it’s a lot of UK talk but he also offers his thoughts on college sports in general and if pressed…I bet he’d break down his complex theory about how your favorite Starburst flavor directly correlates to your annual salary (I just made that up).

This is my chance to also say ‘thank you’ to you the reader. We’ve done some Q&A posts randomly over the years but this was the first full season it became a weekly feature (wow, great timing there CardinalStrong…thank you, me). Appreciate everyone checking them out each and every week and chipping in with your takes. What do you say we pick this back up next season by offering up a few questions to a Notre Dame rep about how he plans on stopping that “Brohm Squad” offense? Sound like a plan?

See you then.