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Coach Stoops Continues To Face A Monumental Rebuilding Program (Part II)
In August, I noted the monumental task facing Coach Stoops in his quest to build the UK football program into a position of SEC competitiveness. I ended that analysis saying, “ 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. ”
Well, five weeks into the 2014 season, the UK record stands at 3-1, 1-1 in the SEC. Yesterday, the Cats managed to slug its way to a sloppy, 10 point win over Vanderbilt to end their 17 game SEC losing streak, and to end their 3 game losing streak to Vanderbilt. Louisiana Monroe provides the Cats their only remaining probable win on the schedule (4 wins total). However, the Cats also have a legitimate opportunity to get that elusive fifth win for this season next Saturday when South Carolina comes into Commonwealth Stadium. The NGE analysis projects the South Carolina game as a “pick-em” (28-28), but Sagarin shows this game in USC's column by 7 ½ points.
After the USC and Monroe games over the next two weeks, Mississippi State is the most likely win among the final 6 opponents. However, any Mississippi State team that can get out of Baton Rouge with an impressive win is a Mississippi State team that will not have any self doubts about their ability to do at least as well when they visit Lexington on October 25.
After 1/3 of the 2014 season, I still believe this team will get 4 wins, and may get 5. However, when digging deeper into the August analysis, this team has not performed as I had anticipated on either the offensive or the defensive sides of the ball. It is clear that this UK team has improved from its 2013 performance, but the manner in which this team has improved has not been on the offensive side of the ball but on the defensive side. In August, I anticipated significant offensive improvement (from 2.4 ppp to about 3.3 ppp), but did not think the defensive side of the ball could improve from 2013's 2.1 ppp to the recent past's best defense at about 1.8 ppp. I hoped to see a UK team move its Adjusted Net Game Efficiency from the 0.3 ppp level of 2013 to about 1.5 ppp in 2014. Through four games, these efficiencies stand at 2.40 ppp on the offensive side and 1.14 ppp on the defensive side. This is an Adj. NGE of 1.26 ppp.
To put the gains of 2014 from 2013 into a numerical perspective, consider the following: Over the last 5 seasons, the Cats have ended the year with the following adjusted efficiencies:
Clearly, the 1.26 ppp Adj. NGE is shy of the pre-season goal of 1.50 ppp, but even at 1.26 ppp, this UK team is currently the third most improved team, behind Arkansas and Mississippi, in the SEC from 2013 to the present. However, 10 of the 14 conference teams have improved this year. The losers have been in order, greatest decline to less great decline, Vanderbilt, South Carolina, Missouri, and LSU, each on the UK 2014 schedule.
So far in 2014, the defense has done its part and more. At 1.14 ppp, this defense is the strongest defense for any Kentucky team since the days of Jerry Claiborne, and perhaps by year end, it may prove worthy of comparisons to Fran Curci's 1977 defense anchored by Art Still. The Offense had teased the fan base with so much hope during the off-season. All of the focus of the spring game was on the offensive potential: the improved wide receivers; the improved running backs; and the improved quarterback play. However, through four games, this offense is performing at essentially the same level of efficiency as the 2013 offense, and well under the 3.1 to 3.2 ppp levels of the 2009 and 2010 teams, or the 3.3 ppp target for the 2014 offensive efficiency.
The bad news in this review springs from an offense that has not really shown any improvement from the prior season.
The good news in this review springs from an offense that oozes potential, even if not yet unrealized. That potential could erupt before our eyes at any time, as Patrick Towles grows into the starting quarterback that his recruiting publicity promised.
The South Carolina, UL Monroe, and Mississippi State sequence of home games now on the horizon, with a trip to LSU scheduled between the Monroe and MSU games, will tell the story for the 2014 Kentucky Wildcats. One win seems very likely; one loss seems very likely; and the USC and MSU games could go either way. With the sputtering offense, both of these games are probable losses. With an offense performing at the 3.3 ppp type efficiency, both of these games are probable wins.
This team could end the next four games at 4-4, 5-3, 6-2, or (let us dream) 7-1. How long has it been since any UK football team could even utter those words with a straight face? Can you imagine how exciting it could be to enter the final 4 game sequence with bowl eligibility already tucked away?
Make no mistake; however, the numbers continue to point toward a 4-win season, with a fifth win within reach. Outstanding defensive effort of the first four games should be sufficient to keep the Cats in the games against South Carolina and Mississippi State, and better offensive efficiency will be sufficient to move both of these games into the W column.
If the Cats finish the next four games at 5-3 or 4-4, I do not believe this team will win again in 2014. If this team can find its offensive identity now, and move to the final four games at 6-2 or 7-1 (dare we dream), then all bets are off against Missouri, Georgia, Tennessee, and Louisville.
Go Big Blue! Go Offense! Go Patrick Towles!
Submitted by Richard Cheeks