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Keg of Nails: Stakes couldn't be higher

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In the world of the University of Cincinnati football and athletics, stakes couldn't be higher Thursday night against Louisville. 

CINCINNATI - Can we pile any more consequences on top of this game? Do rules of physics even allow it? Or would one more repercussion buckle the edges of Nippert Stadium and send it into early destruction? 

Louisville at Cincinnati, 7:30 p.m., ESPN. 

The last Keg of Nails game for the foreseeable future, hopes of an American conference title, a BCS game possibility, final run in the old Nippert before renovations, growing the fan base, impressing recruits, silencing critics, national perception. 

Oh, and it's Louisville. Hated, despised Louisville. 

Did I leave anything out? 

"This is definitely a defining moment," quarterback Jordan Luallen said. "It's pretty cut and dry." 

Indeed. 

Games with stakes this high leave players who spend every moment of every day consumed with its outcome speechless. At a certain point, so much can be said about a game there's nothing left to. 

"This is the game," cornerback Deven Drane said. "Everybody has been waiting for this game. There's not really much you can say about it. It speaks for itself." 

Conversation begins with the dangling carrot of the BCS. With a victory against Louisville and UCF loss Saturday at SMU (with Mustangs star quarterbacks Garrett Gilbert questionable) the Bearcats could be booking a trip back to Miami or New Orleans. 

All this for a team who looked to be playing out a lost season after falling at USF in October. All this for a team who took down six teams in a row, all followed by a "yeah, but." 

No asterisk follows No. 19 Louisville (10-1, 6-1) on the schedule. A win here legitimizes all the previous nine. It would lock down a sixth 10-win season in the last seven years. 

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The game of perception consumes reality in college football - no more so at Cincinnati (9-2, 6-1) where reflecting strength and superiority to outsiders on and off the field directly effects the future health of the athletic department and conference in which it dwells. 

Rarely have the Bearcats owned the national stage, certainly not in the capacity it will Thursday. When was the last time real consequences accompanied national TV exposure? The bowl game at Duke came shrouded in coaching change and the rubble of Butch Jones' departure. The win at Virginia Tech delivered drama, but little more when viewed through the prism of a championship chase. 

Closing a season tugging championship possibilities into a rivalry game happens rarely. Doing so at Nippert Stadium at night with a solo national stage might happen a few times a decade - a great decade, at that. 

How much will UC own the stage Thursday? They'll be pitted against Texans-Jaguars and Knicks-Nets. Oh, and the Sound of Music Live. 

A win could shake the perception of the Bearcats - fair or unfair - as the kid peering outside the candy store in the shifting landscape of FBS football. UC endured only one loss to the Cardinals the last five years, but pushing them off to a new conference would stamp an indelible C-paw on the souls of the Cardinals and minds of the college football onlookers. 

Those opportunities are as valuable as they are rare. 

"Right now there are probably only 15-18 teams that have a chance to win a national championship," Tommy Tuberville said. "Number one because of national recognition, and number two because of the availability of talent.  We want to jump into that market. You do that by recruiting and winning games, but you also need to be noticed while doing it. When you get out on the big stage, and to us,Thursday is a big stage, you have to perform." 

Rivalry wins in front of sellout crowds sway recruits. Luallen recalls visiting Indiana as a junior watching the beat Purdue for the first time in six years then asking where he can sign. Tuberville relayed a story from his son Tucker at Auburn this past weekend dancing in the locker room alongside a number of high school players committed to other schools following their win against Alabama. 

A win could alter the future as much as spotlight the past. 

Winning these games would be no change around Clifton. The Bearcats are 8-0 on Thursday Night Football with their last experiences a 34-10 thrashing of Pittsburgh to open 2012 and 44-14 dismantling of NC State which springboarded the run to a 2011 conference title share. 

Many times critics need reminding of these facts. 

To imprint an exclamation point on the latest ESPN showcase against a hyped possible top overall draft pick would send reverberations beyond the hills of I-71 in Kentucky but also grab those inside the I-275 belt. A program living a constant drive to absorb more fans and prove the best sports bargain in town must occasionally provide nights fathers and sons retell for years. 

Oh, and it's Louisville. Hated, despised Louisville. 

"Everyone is going to be at the peak of emotions," Drane said. 

Perhaps we overrate the implications. Regardless of outcome, the sun will rise Friday. Perhaps pulling back and understanding this is only a football game should be necessary.

Then again, considering the landfill of repercussions, perhaps not. 

Inside the football bubble, for those who follow the University of Cincinnati, for those who chanted "Tommy T! Tommy !" last December, for those who instantly know Thursday is the fourth anniversary of Pike to Binns, for those who still grow goosebumps remember UC charging the field at the Orange Bowl, for those who sway to the alma mater win or lose - for those people - football games don't get bigger. 

Louisville at Cincinnati, 7:30 p.m., ESPN. 

Did I leave anything out? 

I want to hear from you! Shoot me any comments, questions or suggestions regarding UC athletics to pauldehnerjr@gmail.com or hit me up on Twitter @pauldehnerjr. 

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