Slowly but surely, analytics have creeped into the game of football and in the last few seasons they have begun to become common place. ESPN recently hired SB Nation’s Bill Connelly who founded the S&P+ advanced analytic system at Football Outsiders in 2008. The Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI) has been around for awhile and of course there are the Sagarin ratings. ESPN has created the Football Power Index (FPI) which slowly became a system used to analyze the sport. Most recently Pro Football Focus has gotten into the act by grading players and using other types of advanced stats.
The numbers are great and it gives us more data to help breakdown a complicated game, but at the end of the day football is a small sample size sport. Due to the limited possessions and only 12 games in a regular season, it’s possible to vasty overachieve or underachieve in a calendar year. As a matter of fact, it’s pretty common. One thing that makes it great is that at the end of the day you are going to be judged on those 12 results yearly no matter what the circumstances.
Despite a 10-3 season, long winning streaks over both Mizzou and South Carolina, an experienced starting quarterback, and multiple veteran players on both sides of the line, the numbers do not love Kentucky heading into 2019. Here we’ll try to explain how the computer spits out these projections and why they see the Wildcats the way they do.
How It Works
Entering this season, S&P+ projects Kentucky to finish 37th in FBS while FPI has the Wildcats at 40th. However, FPI is calling for 6.4 wins while S&P+ is calling for 6.1. Therefore, you can expect that UK will be underdogs in most of their perceived toss up games and it will be overachieving if Mark Stoops collects at least seven wins for the fourth season in a row.
For this exercise we’re going to focus on the S&P+ rankings since they are more readily available and that ESPN felt it necessary to hire Bill Connelly, in part, to get these rankings on their platform. So let’s start by defining what exactly this ranking system is (Bill goes much more deeper in this piece written back in 2017). This ranking is a tempo and opponent-adjusted measure used to evaluate all things that football teams do to win games. To get the rankings it is broken into five main factors.
S&P+ measures efficiency, explosiveness, field position, finishing drives, and turnovers to determine where to rank teams. Of all of these measures, efficiency (which is called success rate) is the highest measurable since efficiency is the least random of the five. For a quick definition, success rate is essentially staying on schedule. You hit it by gaining 50 percent of the yards to go on first down, 75 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third or fourth down. Pretty simple.
This is all hopefully makes a ton of sense to this point. When dealing with preseason projections there is not enough data to fill the blanks. Therefore, other means must be used since college football rosters change significantly every season (think how they cloned dinosaurs in Jurassic Park). In each year’s projections, S&P+ will use returning production, recent recruiting classes, and recent history to give a prediction. This is important to remember when considering where a specific team is going to land.
Why Kentucky is where they are
The Wildcats enter the season with a respectable ranking in the top-40, but that is only good for 11th in the SEC and sixth in the East. Kentucky’s recruiting and returning production is solid, but its recent history in the eyes of the computer has not been.
Take out the 2018 season and Kentucky has an average finish of just 68.4 in S&P+ during the Mark Stoops era. Only Vanderbilt is worse during that time frame. If you take out the five-year weighted performance average, UK should find itself somewhere in the high 30s and I believe that would make a lot more sense to just about everyone.
The fact of the matter is that UK has been exceptional in one-possession games while S&P+ believes that games that come down to the wire can be a bit random. Since Eddie Gran’s arrival in 2016, Kentucky is 24-15 overall and 11-5 in one-possession games. Nearly half of UK’s victories during this stretch have been decided late in the fourth quarter while two-thirds of the losses have not been. Therefore, the computers believe that Kentucky, for the most part, is not as good as their record.
What it all means
Advanced stats are a great tool for all of us football fans to use because they allow us to become smarter when trying to understand a very complicated game. In college football, there are nearly 130 teams each with over 80 scholarship players on each roster. It’s impossible to watch every game and even the eye test can tell us multiple horrific lies throughout a full season. The numbers help quantify the sport and set a level of expectations of what to expect for your favorite team.
When it comes to Kentucky football, the Wildcats have pretty much exceeded expectations the last three years. UK has won 13 SEC games, 24 total victories, and finally were able to breakthrough with a historic season in 2018. When keeping the program’s history in mind, you’ll take that result everyday of the week and twice on Sunday.
The game is played on the field, but computer systems such as S&P+ should not just be totally glossed over. They can give us very informative reference points that let us know the current state of each football team in FBS. The game is advancing in many ways and this is just one more example. We love college football because it can be so unpredictable at times, but it is the same sport where parity really goes to die. The same 10 or so teams win the championships, but that doesn’t keep others from occasionally reaching above their weight class to deliver a major blow.
Kentucky is on that path, but they need to start turning small wins into double-digit victories and making top-30 finishes like the one in 2018 the norm and not the exception.