When people who aren’t sports fans ask me what it is about watching two teams play a game that is so exciting, I give them one of two answers. If it’s a team I have strong connections to – like Kentucky and, well, Kentucky – the answer is simple. You want to root for your hometown team, state/school pride, and it’s just fun to root for teams as a group. The fan experience.
But if I’m watching a game without obvious personal ties, the question gets a little trickier. Because for me, a big draw to sports comes from following the narratives. Players have them, teams have them, even leagues have them. The narrative being the story of that player/team/league, and how it unfolds on a the landscape of the respective sport. As a story buff, watching TV or film can get boring and predictable once you’ve seen enough of them. The good guy never dies early in a season, the bad guys rarely win, and the Dillon Panthers Hail Mary pass always gets caught in the last second. But that’s what sets sports apart. You can have a pretty good idea of what’s going to happen, but until the time is off the clock – as Kevin Garnett once put it – anything is possible.
So with that being understood, one of the coolest things about moving the Louisville game to the end of the season is the narrative domino’s that will be set up leading up to the game. At the end of the season, there is a lot more on the line and the game has the potential to take on some *real* meaning, other than just bragging rights and a fun way to start the season. So let’s look at some potential narratives we could see as early as 2014.
1. Undefeated season on the line for Louisville
It’s no secret that Louisville is shooting for a BCS game this year, and there is potential talk of an undefeated season landing them in the championship game. While a zero loss record against their cupcake schedule may not be enough to get them in this year, if their success continues – and with the expansion of the BCS championship format – there may come a season where they head to Kentucky with a bid on the line.
And if that’s the case – there may be a season when Kentucky is their toughest opponent on the schedule.
If Stoops is the real deal, or even just half a deal, a decent SEC team would likely challenge for the top spots in the ACC. Tacking that game on to the end of Louisville’s schedule, plus the added pressure of a rivalry game in addition to a championship on the line? The drama would be delicious.
2. Undefeated season on the line for Kentucky
On the other hand, what if Kentucky hasn’t lost yet? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves – there is a long way to go before we can start realistically talking about a championship run even being possible. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. So for all the deliciousness I just laid out about Kentucky possibly spoiling Louisville’s shot at a perfect season, you could say the same for the opposite, right?
Sort of. An undefeated Louisville heading to Kentucky might be looking at their toughest match up of the season. If Kentucky manages to go undefeated through the SEC they won’t have to worry about Louisville looming. You beat Tennessee, Florida, Georgia, no amount of Louisville is going to scare me. It will still make for a great game and fun atmosphere, but it will hardly be the hurdle that it could be for the dirty birds. Instead, it would be a nice cap to the end of a dream season.
3. Bowl Eligibility
But maybe things aren’t all sunshine and lollipops – we still don’t know how great of a coach Charlie Strong is. We know he’s pretty good. He’s got a great QB right now, and he’s played a relatively easy schedule. I am not saying this to detract from what he’s done, we just legitimately don’t know – we don’t have enough data to say one way or the other. It wouldn’t be outside the realm of possibilities, then, that under Strong and Stoops – or any other pair of coaches that might come through the state of Kentucky – that one or both teams would be looking at this rivalry game to get a sixth win and bowl eligibility.
This narrative wouldn’t make national headlines, but it would be *huge* in the state of Kentucky. The winning team gets bragging rights, first and foremost, but they also get the extra month of practice to get a jump start on next year. They get the press that comes along with a bowl, and any recruiting bumps that come from it. A bowl eligibility rivalry game would carry the weight of a program changing result with it. The winning team would gain the momentum going forward, both on and off the field.
4. Toilet Bowl
In the unlikely event that both Stoops and Strong lay stinkers, or they move on and both programs slide, there’s a possibility that this game could mean nothing in the grand scheme of things. If both programs are coming in with no bowl aspirations after lousy conference play, who really cares?
Except, it’s a rivalry game. We all care. Instead of getting the game out of the way early on and wallowing in a miserable season, we can all point towards the last redeeming hope. Being better than Louisville. And that’s the key thing with this shift – in the past a crappy season meant a lack of interest, and a quick shift to basketball. We’ll still have that shift, I mean, we’re Kentucky, but now we will at least be excited, present, and active as fans up through the end of the football season – even if it’s a clunker of a year.
So that’s the gist of it. There may be some people out there that are still disappointed in losing the big kick off to the football season, and I get that. But at the end of the day, moving the game to the end of the season will make the highs higher, and the lows lower. With more at stake for both programs, not to mention with both programs trending up, rivalry week will be electric, I can promise you that.