LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Louisville players talk about the importance of starting the season off with a victory against Kentucky, then almost reluctantly will address the rivalry with their in-state neighbors.
The Wildcat players and coaches have taken a similar approach in secondarily mentioning bragging rights. Kentucky's challenge is getting back to respectability despite a tough schedule that starts with the No. 25 Cardinals, though they say the game reminds them of more unfinished business.
That's not saying taking home the Governor's Cup in Sunday's season opener in Louisville isn't important for both schools. The winner gets to tout ownership, which their fan base will surely flaunt to the other side.
But with the Cardinals and Wildcats each seeking momentum and consistency, both say the season-long big picture has somewhat overshadowed the nearly three-foot-high state trophy.
"Expectations are very high right now," Louisville Coach Charlie Strong said. "We're a preseason ranked football team, but we haven't talked about it. I don't even talk to our players about it because I want them to understand that you have to work. It doesn't matter where you start, it's going to be about where we finish.
"That's why we have to finish every play and finish everything we do."
Louisville is coming off a 7-6 season that included tying for the Big East Conference championship and reaching the Belk Bowl, where North Carolina State exploited the Cardinals' youth. While the underclassmen gained experience — the depth chart features eight sophomore starters — Strong wants the group to show more poise and consistency.
Especially quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who turned a relief appearance for injured Will Stein into a coming-out party against the Wildcats a year ago. He threw for two touchdowns in last year's victory in Lexington en route to earning Big East rookie honors with 2,129 yards and 14 touchdowns on 64.5% passing. Now Bridgewater is expected to be even better.
The same can be said for Louisville's offensive line that wants to prove it's better at pass protection. Who they'll open holes for in the ground game won't be known until kickoff. Strong hasn't announced who will be the starter from the group of front runners for the job: juniors Dominique Brown, Jeremy Wright and Senorise Perry.
Bridgewater is confident in each back's ability to help establish the quick tempo that Louisville desires.
"It's very important (to establish the run) because it helps the quarterback and can set up the play-action pass," Bridgewater said. "That will be very important for us to come out and play fast."
That could take some pressure off the Cardinals' special teams, where Strong is prepared to start true freshman Josh Appleby at punter and redshirt freshman John Wallace or sophomore Matthew Nakatani at kicker. There are no concerns about Louisville's defense, which ranked 10th against the run (100.5 yards per game) and returns all-conference junior safety Hakeem Smith.
Kentucky, meanwhile, looks to rebound from consecutive losing seasons with changes on both sides of the ball. The Wildcats want to be more physical with an emphasis on defense, where tackles Mister Cobble and Donte Rumph and end Collins Ukwu are expected to disrupt things.
That's one reason why senior cornerback Martavius Neloms views this as more than a rivalry game. The Wildcats see Louisville as the first of many preparations for a grueling Southeastern Conference schedule, which features mobile quarterbacks similar to Bridgewater.
"I actually think it's a statement game, especially for us, our fans and our season," Neloms said. "A win there will bring the fans in and can really jump-start our season."
Kentucky's offense begins with sophomore quarterback Maxwell Smith, hoping his promising performance late last season can revive one of the nation's worst offenses. Senior running back CoShik Williams will be counted on to set things up for Smith, though.
Strong believes both schools' have more to prove to themselves and that adds more to this showdown. Other than a "(hash)WeAreUK" billboard strategically placed high above Interstate 65 near the Louisville campus, there has been no trash talk and Cardinals players have found it more amusing than anything.
Louisville enters as a two-touchdown favorite, but that means little in a series Kentucky leads 14-10 with three wins on the Cardinals' turf. Strong views as it two teams seeking the same goal, and if bragging rights ratchet up the focus and intensity, all the better.
"Kentucky is similar to us in a lot of ways," Strong said. "It's a young team, and we're still a young football team. ... When you look at a rival(ry) game, everybody's all excited and everybody gets excited because you look at the (fact) we're an hour away. But it's two good football teams."