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Coach Stoops Continues To Face A Monumental Rebuilding Program
In 2013, the Kentucky football team finished with the same 2-10 record that marked the end of the Joker Phillips era following the 2012 season. In 2012, the wins came over the MAC's Kent State and Samford while in 2013, the wins come over the MAC's Miami of Ohio and Alabama State. The Cats lost all eight SEC games, lost to Louisville, and lost to WKU both seasons. Despite these similarities, the consensus among obsrvers, both the chattering class and the fan base, was that the 2013 team was a better team than 2012's version, and the future is brighter, not dimmer on the strength of Coach Stoops' first two recruiting classes.
To put the gains of 2013 into a numerical perspective, consider the following: Over the last 4 seasons, the Cats have ended the year with the following adjusted efficiencies:
Following the 2010 season, the Kentucky offense went into the tank, and has improved by about 0.5 points per possession in each of the last two seasons. The anticipation for 2014 calls for continued improvement on the offensive side of the ball. Can it return to the 3.2 or higher range in 2014? Last year, 8 SEC teams posted offensive efficiencies greater than 3.23 ppp posted by the Cats in 2010. These efficiencies ranged from 3.28 ppp (TAMU), 3.81 ppp (Missouri), 3.90 ppp (USC), 3.98 ppp (LSU), 4.01 ppp (UGA), 4.14 ppp (Mississippi), 4.23 ppp (Alabama), and 4.50 ppp (Auburn). For this reason, using 3.2 ppp at the target for a SEC offense is probably settling for too little. In my opinion, 3.8 ppp to 3.9 ppp should be the goal for an offense that is competitive in the SEC. Offensive Efficiency will be one key element to track as this season begins.
The defensive efficiency has been in the 2.1 to 2.2 range 3 of the last 4 seasons, the exception being the 2011 defense that posted an impressive efficiency of about 1.6 ppp. To put the defensive efficiency of 1.58 ppp into perspective, consider that last year only 6 SEC teams posted efficiencies under 1.5 ppp, and except for Alabama (0.982 ppp), the average of the other 5 very fine defenses was 1.424 ppp. The 1.5 ppp defensive efficiency provides the second key tracking element for the 2014 Cats.
The Net Game Efficiency peaked in 2010 also at a modest 1.12 ppp. To put this level into context, last year only two SEC teams ended with NGE values less than UK's 2010 1.12 ppp; Florida (0.802 ppp) and Arkansas (0.386 ppp). Half of the SEC teams ended 2013 with NGE values of 2.24 ppp or higher, and Alabama ended the season with a value over 3, 3.25 ppp. To be an upper division SEC team, the team needs to perform on offense and defense to produce a season ending NGE of 2.3 or higher.
The Cats open their 2014 schedule with two home games against Tennessee Martin and Ohio University before heading down to the Swamp to face the Gators in their SEC opener in week 3. After a bye week, the Cats return home for three games including back to back SEC games entertaining Vanderbilt and then South Carolina, and a home encounter against Louisiana Monroe. The Cats then get five SEC opponents, road-home-road-home-road against LSU, Mississippi State, Missouri, Georgia, and Tennessee. The Cats close the season with a bye week leading to their annual rival meeting against Louisville, this year at Papa John's stadium.
As I have done in recent years, I have forecast the season record using 3 methods of prediction: Sagarin pre-season ratings, and direct statistical comparison based on 2013 results, and the Adjusted NGE method, also based on 2013 results. The forecast for 2014 indicatate 3 probable wins on the schedule: UT Martin, Ohio, and Louisiana Monroe. Again, the forecast does not include a win over rival Louisville or any of the 8 SEC opponents. However, four games have predicted margins less than 2 TDs which puts them in play for upsets, especially if these four opponents slip from their 2013 levels while the Cats continue their climb out of the depths of their recent despair.
The four games that could be in play are at Florida, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, and at Tennessee. Since two of these potential W's occur in the first 4 games of the season, the Big Blue Nation will know by the end of September whether this team will manage more than 3 wins in 2014.
To increase the win total in 2014, this Kentucky team must improve on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. On offense, of at least 3.3 ppp coupled with a defense of at least 1.8 ppp would produce a NGE value of about 1.5 ppp for this team and season. At 1.5, all 4 of the games noted above will be in play. Not that the Cats will win all four, but they should be in the games with a chance to win each of them. If the Cats can increase the NGE level to the 2.0 range, it should win all 4 of those games, but it is doubtful that the improvements, as dramatic as they are, would be sufficient to put them within reach of USC, Missou, UGA, or LSU. Louisville is doubtful unless they fall from their SEC worthy 2.46 ppp of 2013. To get to the 2.0 level, either the offense must rise to the aforementioned 3.8 ppp target range, or the defense must drop to the 1.3 ppp range, or some combination of improvement on both sides totalling 0.5 ppp between them.
The task that still lies ahead of Coach Stoops is daunting, to say the least. Four wins would signal continued improvement, albeit modest. Five wins would signal significant improvement. Six or seven wins would send a message to the SEC that Coach Stoops is taking his promises seriously, and should propel Coach Stoops into the SEC Coach of the Year discussion.
I believe this team will get 4 wins, and may get 5. I will be surprised if the improvement on the defensive side of the ball is sufficient to get the 5 th or 6 th wins to put this team into bowl discussions for 2014.
Submitted by Richard Cheeks