We’ve made it to the halfway point in the season. Kentucky is recuperating from six close, physical football games. The Cats are getting some well-deserved rest this weekend prior to jumping back into conference play against Mississippi State. Mark Stoops and his coaches are in the process of self-scouting which will reveal strengths, weaknesses, tendencies, and other avenues for improvement.
This majority of this post was written in the preseason as we provided suggested statistical goals for certain categories. The three classifications utilized in this analysis were: Non-Negotiable Improvements, Advantage (Critical) Developments, and Sustains (Explanation below). The following is a comparison of expected goals vs. updated, current numbers through six games. Let’s take a look:
— Non-Negotiable Improvements are self-explanatory. For UK to enjoy a successful season it must address and immensely improve upon the listed statistical classifications.
— Advantage (Critical) Developments examine actions that were not listed in the upper half of the league but needs to show improvement in order for Kentucky to better its win/loss record from a year ago.
— Sustain is easy. No change, continue status quo, keep on keeping on, keep on truckin; you get the picture.
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).
THROUGH 6 GAMES: Exceeding Goal. Kentucky is 2nd in the SEC with a +8 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.
THROUGH 6 GAMES: Exceeding Goal. Matt Panton is averaging 42.48 yards-per-punt and has placed opposing offenses inside its 20-yard line on many occasions.
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.
THROUGH 6 GAMES: Exceeding Goal. Allowing 33.71% conversion rate on 3rd down.
Preseason Remarks: 2016-Opponents had 576 carries for 2966-yards, 25 TD’s. 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.
THROUGH 6 GAMES: Exceeding Goal. Kentucky is ranked 3rd in the SEC by surrendering 97.17 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.
THROUGH 6 GAMES: Barely Exceeding Goal. Kentucky has totaled 12 QB Sacks; 2.0 per game. 21 total for 2016 averaged 1.62 QB Sacks per contest.
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 TFL’s 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.
THROUGH 6 GAMES: Less Than Expected Goal. 27 Tackles for Loss (TFL) or 4.5 per game. 2016’s defense averaged 5.31 TFL’s per contest.
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.
THROUGH 6 GAMES: Lesser Than Expected Goal. UK is averaging 27.5 points-per-game. Leading factor-just 11/20 trips to the Red-Zone produced touchdowns (55%).
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.
THROUGH 6 GAMES: Exceeding Goal-Allowing 21.3 points-per-game which is 10 less per contest than in 2016.
Offensive 4th Down Conversions
Preseason Remarks: 2016–12 out of 16 attempts, 75% (SEC-1st).
2017 Goal: More of same.
THROUGH 6 GAMES: Meeting Expected Goal–75%.
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.
THROUGH 6 GAMES: Not Meeting Expected Goal. 138.33 yards-per-game is 95.82 fewer 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.
THROUGH 6 GAMES: Not Meeting Expected Goal: Allowing 288.7 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.
THROUGH 6 GAMES: Meeting/Not Meeting Expected Goal-90% conversion rate. But, only 55% Red-Zone trips resulted in touchdowns.
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.
THROUGH 6 GAMES: Not Meeting Expected Goal. Austin MacGinnis is hitting 72.2% 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. No worries here.
What does all this mean?
PRESEASON REMARKS: Numbers don’t lie. 2016 was an anomaly as Kentucky was last in turnover margin and punting yet won 4 SEC games. Depth, experience, and player development are all catch phrases that could be displayed in hard data in 2017.
THROUGH 6 GAMES: The 2017 Wildcats have circled the wagons and taken on an identity of a tough, gritty team that revels in adversity and disrespect. Injuries at key positions have significantly impacted production in certain areas. Expected strengths have proven to be current weaknesses. Predicted flaws have transitioned into potencies. The back half of the season could provide a bumpier ride due to increased level of competition. But, Kentucky is 5-1 and a bunch of other teams are not.