This original preseason post presented improvement ambitions for Kentucky to achieve a successful season. “Successful” is a subjective term based on individual expectancy. This post combines original content, preseason projections, and matches numerical targets with final statistical results.
Let’s update season ending data in order to see if the Cats exceeded or failed to match intended result.
Preseason Remarks: Recovered 8 fumbles, intercepted 13 passes for a +21 margin. Conversely, UK lost 16 fumbles, threw 12 interceptions for a total of -28. Combined, it formulated a -7 total turnover margin (14th or last in the SEC).
2017 Goal: This number needs to be in the +2 level at a minimum. Mid-pack in the league was a +3 a year ago. This digit’s reduction will assist most all other statistical areas of concern. Last year’s turnovers twisted potential blowout wins into nail biters (Vanderbilt) and potential close game victories into losses (Georgia).
FINAL RESULT: Exceeded Goal. The Cats finished 2017 with a +5 turnover margin.
Preseason Remarks: 2016 – 61 punts, 2335-yards, 38.3 yards per, allowed 125 return yards for a 2-yard average, kicked 5 touchbacks which equaled a total 34.6 net yards per punt (SEC-14th).
2017 Goal: Again, just shooting for mid-level production, a 39-40-yard net punt average would greatly improve field position and ease strain on the defense. Strategic, inside the ten-yard line punt placement also needs immense upgrading. Regardless, punting has to drastically improve.
FINAL RESULT: Exceeded Goal. Matt Panton averaged 42.67 yards per punt.
Third Down Defense
Preseason Remarks: 2016-Opponents converted 80 of 180 3rd down attempts for a 44.4% success percentage (SEC-13th)
2017 Goal: 39% would provide Eddie Gran’s offense with more possessions which could translate to additional points. 39% ranks in the middle of the SEC. Plus, getting off the field has been a struggle for Stoops’ defense throughout his tenure. Personnel shortages have greatly impacted this deficiency. 3rd down defense improved down the stretch in 2016 which could act as a precursor for this number to drop even further.
FINAL RESULT: Failed to Meet Goal. Allowed 41.07% conversion rate on 3rd down.
Preseason Remarks: 2016 – Opponents had 576 carries for 2966-yards, 25 TDs. 5.1 yards per attempt and 228 yards per game ranked 12th in the SEC.
2017 Goal: A realistic goal and more likely a blue lensed view would be for the Wildcats to allow 195-200 yards per game. Lack of proven defensive line depth significantly factors in this estimation. However, UK has an upper-level linebacker corps and secondary which includes the conference’s top two returning tacklers: LB Jordan Jones (109) and Safety Mike Edwards (100). I’m least confident in rush defense improvement than all other statistical projections within this study. (I was wrong here.)
FINAL RESULT: Exceeded Goal. Allowed 162.17 rush yards per game.
Advantage (Critical) Developments
Preseason Remarks: 2016 – Kentucky produced 21 QB sacks for a -171 yards (SEC-11th)
2017 Goal: 29. 83% of last season’s QB sacks came from the linebackers. Josh Allen and Denzil Ware combined for 12.5. That total was more than Bud Dupree and Za’Darious Smith combined for in their last season in Lexington. Factor in LB Jordan Jones, Jamar “Boogie” Watson, and a potential rookie or two and 29 is easily an attainable goal.
The Cats had several close call sacks during which the quarterback escaped pressure in 2016. The most important number here is the aforementioned 83%. The defensive line and select defensive backs will need to increase its contribution in order for total sacks to increase by eight.
FINAL RESULT: Failed to Meet Goal. 28 QB sacks. Must be noted that UK registered zero QB sacks in its final game vs. Louisville.
Tackles for Loss
Preseason Remarks: 2016 – 69 tackles for loss for -277 yards, averaged 5.31 TFL per game.
2017 Goal: 80. This column has varied over the years. From 54 in Stoops’ first season to 65 in Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith’s last season in Lexington. 2015’s 53 TFLs was last in the league. Kentucky’s jump to 69 a year ago was quite impressive but not surprising with four explosive linebackers. Matter of fact, LB Jordan Jones (15.5 TFL) and LB/DE Denzil Ware (12 TFL) are the league’s number one and three returning leaders in this category respectively.
SEASON RESULT: Failed to Meet Goal. In fact, failed to do so by a sizable margin. Kentucky finished the season 13th in the SEC with just 58 tackles for loss.
Preseason Remarks: 2016 – Scored 49 touchdowns, 44 extra points, two 2-point conversions, 16 field goals for 390 total points, 30 points per game (SEC-9th)
2017 Goal: 35 points per game. A decrease in turnovers will increase scoring opportunities. Couple that with a sustained, efficient Red Zone offense and it’s easy to envision UK adding five points per game.
FINAL RESULT: Failed to Meet Goal. Averaged 25.8 points per game.
Preseason Remarks: 2016 – Allowed 50 touchdowns, 48 extra points, one 2-point conversion, 19 field goals, 407 total points, 31.3 points per game (SEC-11th)
2017 Goal: 27 points per game. With question marks surrounding its defensive line, projecting the Wildcats to decrease its total points per game by four-points per game is a realistic approach. This number isn’t as much of a reflection of an ineffective defense but more out of respect to offenses it will face. Many are expected to light up scoreboards. Missouri, Georgia, Louisville, South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and even Florida are all projected to possess more offensive weapons in 2017. Expect several shootouts.
SEASON RESULT: Failed to Meet Goal. Allowed 28.6 points per game.
Offensive 4th Down Conversions
Preseason Remarks: 2016 – 12 out of 16 attempts, 75% (SEC-1st)
2017 Goal: More of same; 75%
SEASON RESULT: Failed to Meet Goal – 55.56%
Preseason Remarks: 2016 – 560 carries, 3044 yards, 5.4 yards per carry, 30 touchdowns, 234.2 yards per game (SEC-3rd)
2017 Goal: Continued success. The Cats will be in more shootout games this fall. Its ability to maintain line-of-scrimmage management and a physical run game will be the separating factor that could catapult Kentucky to an improved win total. Ramifications of losing Stanley Williams will be quickly identified.
RB Benny Snell is an established, 1000-yard rusher. Finding a rotation behind Snell will be paramount. Promising freshmen AJ Rose and Bryant Koback are capable, fast, and powerful. Sihiem King is a change of pace and direction back that could get quality carries.
QB Stephen Johnson is the key to the Kentucky rushing game. He must be able to present the threat of an RPO (Run-Pass-Option) to keep additional defenders from stacking the box. In addition, a higher completion percentage of short to intermediate pass plays can also act as a preventer from opponents focusing solely on stopping the run.
SEASON RESULT: Failed to Meet Goal. Kentucky averaged 167.75 rush yards per game.
Preseason Remarks: 2016 – Opponents attempted 352 passes, completed 202, 13 interceptions, 57.4%, 2679 yards, 7.6 yards per, 20 touchdowns, 206.1 yards per game (SEC-5th).
2017 Goal: Projecting a number here is difficult. This category will be greatly impacted by pass rush and an increase of quarterback sacks. UK has talented cornerbacks and an elite safety. It has a top-5 SEC secondary. However, numbers are driven by exterior influences.
SEASON RESULT: Failed to Meet Goal. Allowed 263.5 pass-yards per game, 14th in the SEC.
Red Zone Offense
Preseason Remarks: 2016 – Converted 36 times from 42 trips to Red Zone, 85.7%, 25 touchdowns, 11 field goals.
2017 Goal: Sustain success and become more diverse.
SEASON RESULT: Exceeded Goal. UK converted on 92.31% of all red-zone trips. However, it scored just 24 touchdowns or 61.54%. Kentucky’s inability at times to finish drives with touchdowns influenced its win/loss category.
Field Goal Percentage
Preseason Remarks: 2016 – Attempted 19 field goals, converted 16 for 84.2% (SEC-3rd)
2017 Goal: Kicker Austin MacGinnis is one of, if not the best kicker in the history of the University of Kentucky. Enough said.
SEASON RESULT: Failed to Meet Goal. Austin MacGinnis is hit 77.8% of attempted field goals. However, the program’s all-time leading scorer has been called on for several 50+ yard kicks which adds to level of difficulty.
What does all this mean?
Kentucky failed to meet the following defensive goals: QB Sacks, Tackles for Loss, Pass Defense, and 3rd down conversions. It exceeded the run defense expectation. The lack of explosive, across the line-of-scrimmage plays (TFL-QB Sacks) was a reflection of a defensive front that failed to force the issue. Defense is circular, a lacking pass rush coupled with struggling secondary coverage equaled a staggering increase in pass yards allowed. Add the two together; 3rd down conversions lessened. Linebacker was the expected strength of the defense. The position group finished the season with disappointing performances against Louisville and Georgia.
Offensively, Benny Snell once again demolished program rushing records but the team dipped in run-game production. Sihiem King was a times a complimentary addition to the Wildcat rushing attack. AJ Rose’s absence in the rotation lessened a second, physical presence. The offensive line took time to gel. This was not a surprise given the unexpected attrition after losing starting left tackle Cole Mosier and Nick Haynes’ situation. Stephen Johnson and his receivers did not frequently connect on deep routes which led to opposing defenses to stack the box which factored in a lower rushing yardage total. Again, unexpected attrition impacted. Eddie Gran was down 3-4 All SEC candidates that he was expecting to contribute in 2017.
Matt Panton was a significant upgrade at punter and Kentucky vastly improved its turnover margin.