BIG BLUE FANS FOR
How Important Was the 2016 Football Season?
Reflections On 2016:
The Kentucky Wildcat football team completed the 2016 season at the Tax Slayer Bowl (Formerly Gator Bowl) in Jacksonville, Florida. Yes, the loss to Georgia Tech was a disappointing finish to an otherwise very successful football season. Reflecting on the season, few, if any, were willing to predict a bowl trip, much less wins over South Carolina, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, Missouri, AND Louisville at halftime of game 3 against New Mexico State.
The Cats lost the first two to Southern Mississippi after dominating the first 25 minutes of the game, and in week 2, the Cats simply did not show up in Gainesville Florida, losing 7-45. At the half against New Mexico State, the Cats were tied, losing in the stats on first downs, rushing and passing against a team that Vegas believed was at least 22 points inferior to the Cats. In addition, the Cats lost its starting quarterback, Drew Barker, in the first offensive series of the game, and suddenly transfer Stephen Johnson was thrust into the role of running the offense.
The Cats (and Stephen Johnson) found a winning combination in the second half of game 3, ending with a 20 point, 62-42 win. However, through the first 3 games, the Cats stood 1-2, had been outscored 104-131, and had an Adjusted Net Efficiency of -0.166 points per possession. This was a dismal and disappointing start for Coach Stoops' fourth season at the helm. Pre-season expectations, indeed pre-season demands, for Coach Stoops' program included at least 6 wins and a bowl trip following the 5-7 finishes in 2014 and 2015. The defense in 2016 through 3 games was porous to be kind, and now the high powered offense, built around Drew Barker's arm, was without that arm and appeared rudderless.
Coach Stoops made two critical changes. First, he assumed a personal role and responsibility for the defensive side of the ball. Second, his offensive staff shifted its offensive design from the pass oriented attack that Drew Barker's arm would support to a run oriented attack to diminish the significance of Stephen Johnson's less impressive throwing arm. The results were nothing short of amazing and quickly seen.
The Cats pulled out a win over South Carolina in week 4. However, the Cats then had the unenviable task of traveling to Tuscaloosa, Alabama for their Game 5 to face the consensus #1 team in the land. Yes, it is true that the Cats left Alabama 2-3 on the season, but it is also true that the Cats' performance in T-Town was notably improved. Alabama was 4-0, having scored 48, 52, 48, and 38 points in its first four games. The Cats “held” the Tide to only 34 points. The Tide defense only allowed Southern California to score 6 points in its marquee season opener at a neutral field, and the Cats managed to score 6 on the Tide despite its offensive woes given Barker's loss to injury and Stephen Johnson struggling to find his identity in the new offensive scheme.
Following the Alabama trip, Stephen Johnson led the Cats to three consecutive wins, beating Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, and at Missouri to move to a 5-3 record with 4 games remaining on the schedule. When Georgia came to town for game 9, hopes were running high that the Cats could possibly get to its critical 6 th win and lift a great burden from Coach Stoops' shoulder. Many believed that a win over Georgia in Game 9 would allow the team to relax and play great football over the final 3 games, getting an almost assured 7 th win against Austin Peay in Game 11. This line of thinking allowed speculation about a possible 8 th win at either Tennessee or Louisville.
However, the Cats could not put away the Dawgs, and lost a heart breaker, 24-27, falling to 5-4. This was a huge loss for the Cats even though the essential 6 th win was all but assured when the Cats would play Austin Peay in Game 11. The Georgia loss clearly took wind from the Cats' sails, and the Cats turned in a poor game in week 10 at Tennessee, losing by 13, 36-49. The Cats did get that elusive, and very important 6 th win over Austin Peay which sent the Cats into Louisville's Papa John's Stadium already bowl eligible at 6-5.
In the battle of the Bluegrass, the Cats played like champions, and handed the high flying Cards a 41-38 loss to move to 7-5. The 7 th win pushed the Cats up the bowl priority ladder and delivered that precious spot in the Tax Slayer Bowl against Georgia Tech. The bowl loss to Georgia Tech was a disappointing end to an otherwise very successful football season. While the Cats' dismal start yielded an ANE -0.116 ppp through its first 3 games, the Cats played the final 10 games with an ANE of +1.153 ppp.
The 7-5 regular season in 2016, and most importantly the huge win at Louisville, boosted the Stoops' program from rudderless to focused and advancing. The season provided the Stoops' program additional days of practice and development in December, a bonus reserved only for teams that earn bowl appearances. The 2016 season performance has been instrumental in securing one of the strongest recruiting classes in UK history for this fall. The season put a kick in the step of the UK players and coaches, indeed the entire Big Blue Nation, as they conditioned and planned through the winter. Now, the Big Blue Nation is biding its time through the summer as the players and coaches labor through the summer of 2017 responding to great expectations for 2017 and beyond.
Anticipating 2017, and Beyond:
Many have observed that the Cats will have a favorable schedule in 2017. However, UK's 2017 football schedule will be very difficult for the Cats to navigate despite their recent improvements. The 12-game schedule has seven games at Kroger Field and five games on the road. The Cats will play at Southern Miss (Game 1), South Carolina (Game 3), Mississippi State (Game 7), Vanderbilt (Game 10), and Georgia (Game 11). The Cats will host EKU (Game 2), Florida (Game 4), Eastern Michigan (Game 5), Missouri (Game 6), Tennessee (Game 8), Mississippi (Game 9), and Louisville (Game 12).
How will the Cats find seven wins from this schedule to match last season's wins and to earn a second consecutive bowl appearance? The following Table provides the preseason theoretical margins for the 12 regular season games.
At home, the Cats should handle EKU (Game 2), and Eastern Michigan (Game 5). However, given the Cats' propensity to stumble in their season openers during the Stoops' Era, Game 1 at Southern Mississippi poses an immediate threat to the Cats' seven-win objective. Everyone associated with the UK program should still remember the sting of the Cats' embarrassing loss to Southern Miss in last season's opening game at Commonwealth Stadium. I believe Coach Stoops and his staff will have the full attention of the players for the 2017 opener on September 2 at Carlisle-Faulkner Field in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. If so, that would provide the Cats their third win.
Where will the Cats find four or more wins from the remaining nine games on its schedule to match last season's seven wins? The Big Blue Nation will debate this question throughout the summer of 2017.
To start this debate, how do the Cats stack up statistically against their 2017 opponents? Using the 2016 statistical record as the starting point for this 2017 forecast, the Cats would be favored to win at Southern Mississippi by 10, over EKU by 16, at South Carolina by 4, over Eastern Michigan by 6, at Mississippi State by 1, at Vanderbilt by 2, and at Georgia by 2. If the season plays out in this manner (based solely on 2016 statistical comparisons), the Cats will win seven and achieve bowl eligibility to match last season. In addition, the statistical comparison between the Cats and Missouri indicate this will be pick ‘em game. The UK program has been trending up while Missouri has been trending down. If these multi-year trends continue, the Cats could secure an 8 th win when it hosts Missouri.
A note of caution is in order because six of these eight projected “wins” have a theoretical margin that between 0 and 6 points. This means that six of these eight projected “wins” are also games the Cats could lose with a below average game, or if the Cats sustain even minor slippage from last season's 1.153 ppp ANE. Further, the statistical comparisons indicate the four projected “losses” have theoretical margins of -1 (Mississippi), -2 (Florida), -3 (Tennessee), and -9 (Louisville). This means that all four of these projected “losses” are also games the Cats could win with an above average game, or if the Cats post even minor gains from last season's 1.153 ppp ANE.
In 2017, two of the Cats' 12 games are probable wins, with the remaining 10 games having a theoretical margin within +/- 10 points. This introduces greater uncertainty into the 2017 season because the outcome of these 10 games will be based on how well the Cats and each of these opponents play in those specific games. It is important to note that the 2017 schedule does not include a single game that is a probable loss based on these pre-season comparisons. That is a significant departure from prior seasons, which consistently indicated 3 to 5 games in the probable loss category.
The theoretical margins are razor thin for the majority of games whether the Cats are favored or the underdog. When championship caliber teams play in that environment, they get the job done and get the wins while teams that have not yet reached championship levels fall short more often than not. However, I believe the important distinction is the distribution of these razor then matchups as we look ahead to 2017 as compared to prior years.
In prior years, there have been 1 to 3 games that the Cats should clearly win, and 2 to 4 games that the Cats realistically have little chance of winning, leaving 6 to 7 games that have razor thin theoretical margins. TABLE II above provides this distribution for the Stoops' Era of UK Football. The ability to get to 6 or even 7 wins in those seasons depended upon holding serve in the 1 to 3 games that are probable wins for the Cats and picking off 3 to 4 of the 6 or 7 games that have the razor thin theoretical margins. That is a tough order to fill just to achieve bowl eligibility. This has defined the world of UK football for the vast majority of seasons.
This season, there are no games in the second category, i.e. games in which the Cats have little realistic chance of winning. This does not occur because of my methodology; I have not changed my methodology for the 2017 preseason projections from that used for these previous seasons. This occurs now because of gains achieved by this program over the last 4 seasons, particularly the gains displayed over the last 10 games last season. The 7-5 (potentially 8-4) projected record for 2017 is based on a static condition between 2016 and 2017. What other starting point can one reasonably create for a preseason analysis? Certainly, the state of these football programs is not a static situation. We all realize that some of these teams, possibly Kentucky, will be stronger than they were last year, and some of them, possibly Kentucky, will not be stronger, but weaker. We cannot know now which opponents and UK will be stronger or weaker. Last season, of the 14 SEC teams and UL, 7 were weaker and 8 stronger than the year before. These trends have ranged between 9/6 and 5/10 over the last 5 years, and have averaged 6.8/7.6 over these 5 seasons. Therefore, I would expect about 7 of the SEC/UL teams to be stronger this year than last, and about 8 of them to be weaker.
Again, the 7-5 projection is based on static conditions, and clearly if UK is one of the weaker teams in 2017, then it will not achieve this 7-5 outcome. It will lose more of those razor thin matchups than it will win. However, look at the trends that Coach Stoops has established in his first 4 seasons. On defense, his teams have gotten stronger each season over the prior season. On offense, his teams have gotten stronger 3 of the 4 seasons, with the only set back occurring in 2015. These trends strongly suggest to me that Coach Stoops' work is paying dividends that will continue to occur moving forward. That is why I believe UK is probably going to be one of the 6 to 9 teams that will be stronger in 2017. How much stronger is the key question.
If the improvement is marginal, then I see this team taking the next step to 8 wins. However, if the improvement can be significant, as it was last season, then 9, 10, or even 11 wins cannot be ruled out. None of us know what will happen. I certainly make no claims to know what the future holds. However, I do believe the recent past is a reliable indicator for the future. Therefore, I am optimistic.
One last point about the trends, since Coach Stoops arrived at UK, 8 of the SEC/UL teams have improved from their 2012 level of performance through their 2016 levels, and 7 have declined. UK is one of the 8 that have improved. TABLE III provides a summary of the programs that have improved and not improved since the end of the 2012 season.
In those 4 years, UK has had the 3rd largest improvement, losing ground to only Alabama and Auburn. In the SEC East, the UK gains have set the pace, and 5 of the 7 have lost ground in absolute terms. In the aggregate, this is why UK finds itself in the conversation today about a possible SEC East Championship. Even though 8 teams posted NET improvement while 7 declined over the four seasons (2013 through 2016), the average change is negative (-0.133 ppp).
For anyone so inclined to search my postings around the Stoops' hiring, I was skeptical to put it kindly about his talk of competing for championships. While the program is not there yet, it is clearly heading in that direction. Remember, when Coach Stoops arrived, UK was at the very bottom of this 15 team heap. UK had a considerable amount of ground to make up before it could even gain true competitiveness in the vast majority of its games, thus the 2-10 record in 2013.
BTW, in this analysis, if there are gainers, there will also be losers. While not truly a zero sum situation, it is close to it on a macroscopic scale.
For the first time in recent memory, the Cats should be competitive in every game they play, which is the product of sustained programmatic improvements during the first four years of the Stoops' Era. The Cats' 2016 level of efficiency over the last 10 games of 2016 (1.153 ppp) was sufficient to sustain the annual improvement that this program has experienced as Coach Stoops continues to push this program forward.
In Coach Phillips' last season, the Cats posted an ANE of -0.260 ppp, and in Coach Stoops' first four seasons, the values have been 0.224 ppp (2013), 0.982 ppp (2014), 0.768 ppp (2015), and 1.153 ppp (2016). In 2016, the Cats' offensive efficiency (2.85 ppp) was the strongest of the Stoops' Era. Based on the trend established over the last 4 seasons, it would be entirely reasonable to project continued improvement on the offensive side to about 2.95 ppp in 2017 (Trend Analysis is 3.15 ppp). In 2016, the Cats' defensive efficiency (1.70 ppp) was the best of the Stoops' Era, and was the fourth consecutive improvement in his four seasons. It is entirely reasonable to project continued improvement on the defensive side to about 1.53 ppp in 2017 (Trend Analysis is 1.53 ppp).
Therefore, the projected ANE for 2017 is 1.42 ppp (Trend Analysis is 1.62), which is a more than a marginal improvement from the 1.153 ppp posted over the last 10 games of 2016. This represents an average improvement of about 3 to 3 ½ points per game improved margin, and sufficient to solidify the theoretical margins against Eastern Michigan, South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, and Georgia. In addition, the aforementioned pick ‘em game against Missouri shifts into the Cats' win column. Finally, a 3 to 3 ½ points improvement over the 2016 results puts the Mississippi, Florida, and Tennessee games into play for the Cats.
An ANE of 1.42 ppp in 2017 will require an improvement of 0.27 ppp from the level of play in the last 10 games of 2016. While achievable, that represents a shift that will be difficult to achieve. Assuming the Cats can improve to an ANE of 1.42 or higher, it is entirely possible that the Cats could host Louisville at Kroger Field on November 25 as the SEC East Champion with an 11-0 record, with a realistic opportunity to complete an unbelievable 12-0 season with a second consecutive win over the Cards.
Oh, but let us not get ahead of ourselves with these visions of grandeur. For those who have followed my analysis of UK football over the years, you know that I am not prone to drinking the Big Blue Kool-Aide, especially not to this degree. To be sure, I do not expect these Cats to win 9, 10, or 11 games, much less to run the table in 2017. However, I have every expectation that these Cats will win seven games and could move up the college football ladder with an 8 th regular season win in 2017. I also realize that the Cats are likely to lose one or two along the way that they probably should not lose, and that the Cats are likely to win one or two along the way that they probably should not win. That is the nature of competitive sport.
When Coach Stoops arrived on the UK campus, the 2012 season had ended with only 2 wins and by all accounts, the talent cupboard was bare. In 2013, Coach Stoops began a long term mission of building a football program from the ground up, and in his first year, Coach Stoops, his staff, and the players available to them could only manage 2 wins. In 2014 and 2015, his teams posted 5 wins in each season. The pattern of winning in the first half of the year and losing through the back half of the season intensified frustrations among the Big Blue Nation and masked over the real gains that the program was making. In the lead up to the 2016 season, the frustration manifested as demands from many sectors that Coach Stoops must get at least 6 wins in 2016 or prepare to take a hike.
The level of improvement required to move a program from 2 wins to 5 wins is relatively modest, thus the sharp increase in wins between 2013 and 2014. However, it is more difficult to move from 5 wins to 6 wins, or from 6 wins to 7 wins, than it is to move from 2 wins to 5 wins. I have compiled data correlating the number of regular season wins by all SEC teams over the last several seasons with the Adjusted Net Efficiency (ANE). The improvement required to even move from 7 wins to 8 wins is similar to the marginal improvements necessary for the move from 6 to 7 wins. However, the improvements required to move up the "win ladder" to 9 wins and beyond increases win each additional step. In addition, to achieve gains at ANE values above the 1.5 ppp level is more difficult, as evidenced by the very small number of 9, 10, 11, and 12 win regular seasons that occur in college football.
Will the Cats consolidate and build upon their 2016 gains, thus rise to this challenge in 2017? On September 2, 2017 we will begin to learn the answer.
Submitted by Richard Cheeks