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Wildcats not hiding from magnitude of season opener

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Joker Phillips is 1-1 as a head coach against rival Louisville. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics) Joker Phillips is 1-1 as a head coach against rival Louisville. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics)
As soon as the last football of the 2011-12 season was snapped - and maybe sooner - Kentucky and Louisville fans circled Sept. 2 on their calendars.

The annual showdown for the Governor's Cup is always big, but the buildup to this one has been different. Wildcat supporters see it as a chance to rebound from a disappointing year with a huge win over their biggest rival. Cardinal fans view beating UK as the first step to fulfilling BCS-or-bust expectations.

For the most part, U of L and especially UK players and coaches have stayed above the fray, electing to skip out on the friendly and sometimes not so friendly back-and-forth preceding the game. That does not mean they don't understand its significance.

Mix the intensity of the rivalry game with the jitters associated with a season opener and you have the recipe for some serious nerves.

"The past week or so, I've been kind of anxious; just have a weird feeling in your stomach," junior linebacker Avery Williamson said. "I'm just ready to play. It's a good anxious feeling, and I'm just ready to go and jump into it. I can't wait for it to get here."

Williamson won't have to wait much longer. UK is just days away from making the short trek west to the biggest city in the Bluegrass to face Louisville at 3:30 p.m. on Sunday on ESPN. UK-U of L is the lone football game - college or NFL - on the schedule for Sunday, which means the eyes of a huge national audience figure to be trained on the Cats and Cards as they do battle for the 25th time in the rivalry's history.

Quarterback Max Smith, adding to everything else, will be making his first season-opening start and his first start against Louisville. However, it's not as if he's completely without experience. Papa John's Cardinal Stadium is expected to be rocking, but Smith has already played at LSU and South Carolina. Even so, he'll be dealing with nerves too.

"I'm nervous before every game, nothing really is going to change," Smith said. "I've been nervous before every game even if we played a really bad team in high school I would be nervous before that game. If I'm not nervous then something is wrong."

Smith went on to say he plans to treat Sunday like any other game in spite of everything swirling around it, but even he had to concede its meaning in terms of setting the tone for the rest of the season.

"Winning the first game is very crucial," Smith said. "It can set you up big time."

Experts and fans aren't expecting big things out of UK in 2012. Completely turning around those opinions will take an entire season, but what better place to start than in the spotlight this weekend?

"What a great opportunity for us," head coach Joker Phillips said. "We've played a lot of top 25 teams, come out on top on some. This is a great opportunity for us to play against a top 25 team in our first game."

The word "opportunity" sums up the way Phillips is approaching this game pretty effectively. He's not putting the pressure on his team - there's enough of that coming from elsewhere - opting instead to focus on what a win would mean. For his purposes, the fact that U of L is a fairly substantial favorite works just fine.

"That's what I'm accustomed to," Phillips said. "We've always been in this position, even when we had some good teams here that finished pretty good. We take it for what it's worth. We use it as motivation and we'll play. That's what we do. We don't talk about it. We just go play."

Louisville will present plenty of challenges though, the most obvious of which is sophomore quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. His first action last year came against Kentucky when starter Will Stein went down with an injury. The Wildcat defense, having centered its game plan around Stein, struggled to cope with Bridgewater in a 24-17 loss. He would go on to start the season's final 10 games, throwing for over 2,100 yards and leading his team to the Belk Bowl.

"He's a guy that played really well for them in the second half (against) us, made some huge throws," Phillips said. "Came out of high school, people were wondering if he could throw the ball well enough to be a big-time quarterback. Well, he can."

There's a pretty good chance Bridgewater and Smith will be dealing with less than ideal throwing conditions. Sunday's forecast calls for a 70-percent chance of potentially heavy rainfall. Poor footing and slippery balls could make life hard on receivers and defensive backs, making play in the trenches that much more important.

In terms of pressure up front, Louisville head coach Charlie Strong and UK defensive coordinator Rick Minter both aren't afraid to bring the heat. The two teams combined for 10 sacks in last season's matchup, but Phillips believes in his quarterback's ability to cope with the Cardinal blitz.

"What will help Max is what he has seen in practice," Phillips said. "(Minter) is cut from the same cloth (as Strong). You know, he likes to bring pressure from all different angles, all different directions, all different down and distance, similar to what we'll see on Sunday, Max has seen all (preseason)."

Especially if the conditions are as bad as they could be, Smith will need as much help as possible from his running game. UK managed just 3.5 yards per carry in 2011 and just 35 yards on 32 rushes against the Cardinals. U of L ran for 181 yards in last season's game, marking the 16th time in as many seasons the team with more rushing yards has won the Governor's Cup.

Louisville's win over Kentucky last year, combined with the Cardinals' five wins in their final six regular season games, has propelled U of L into the favorite role, but Phillips has been around this rivalry too long to pay much attention to any of that.

"The team that wins this thing comes out of this thing with momentum," Phillips said. "We need the momentum, and so do they need the momentum. That's why it will be a great game.  Regardless of who is favored, who is in the top 25, it will be a great football game."

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