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Kentucky Football: Improvement? Yes, And Then There Is The "Damning 'But'"

Is Kentucky football getting better? Yes, and the game Saturday in Columbia helps illustrate that. But the Wildcats have a long way to go to be anything other than a doormat in the SEC.

Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

I thought I'd catch up a bit this morning with the reaction around the college football world to Kentucky's surprisingly tough fight against the South Carolina Gamecocks on Saturday.

As Kentucky football fans, we have always struggled for respect around the college football world in general and around the SEC in particular. After the last three seasons, it's not hard to understand why. Kentucky has been pretty loathsome since the days of Randall Cobb and Derrick Locke.

The thing is, no matter how well this team, or subsequent teams play in defeat, the idea here is to win. This year, it's understandable that Kentucky fans would accept the equivalent of moral victories, or being competitive with superior opponents as a sign of improvement, and it is. Let's keep in mind, though, that unless Kentucky actually wins some games, we are still justifiably considered to be a doormat.

This year, as we all knew it would, is proving to be a difficult time to actually win football games. Kentucky is having to adapt to their personnel, which lack depth and, to a somewhat lesser extent, talent, compared to the middle of the SEC pack. Obviously the distance of both measures to that of the SEC elite is rather greater, but ... baby steps.

Here are just a few statistical signs that Kentucky is making progress:

Rankings in the SEC for select stats (source:

The good

  • Scoring defense: 9th. Kentucky finished 13th in this category last season.
  • Passing defense: 3rd. That's a big jump up from 9th last season.
  • Sacks: Kentucky is tied for 5th in sacks with Georgia and Auburn.
  • Opponent kickoff returns: UK is 3rd best in the league.
  • Opponent punt returns: Kentucky is 6th in the league, giving up an average of 6.9 yards per punt return.
  • Red zone conversions: Kentucky is converting 79% in the red zone, good enough for 6th.
  • 4th down conversions: Kentucky is tied for 3rd with Vanderbilt, converting 73%.
  • Fumbles forced: Kentucky is tied for 3rd with Texas A&M and Vanderbilt.
  • Kentucky is 6th in kickoff returns.
  • Kentucky is 4th in opponent 3rd down conversions. Surprisingly, UK is able to get off the field on 3rd down more than most.
  • Kentucky has the 4th most penalty yards, but penalties have notably improved in the past couple of games.

The bad

  • Kentucky is dead last in scoring offense.
  • Kentucky is 13th in rushing offense.
  • Kentucky is 13th in total offense (sensing a pattern here?).
  • Kentucky is dead last in first downs.
  • Kentucky is 12th in sacks allowed.
  • Kentucky is dead last in 3rd down conversions.
  • Kentucky is dead last in time of possession.
  • Kentucky is 13th in passes defended. An interesting negative counterpoint to our overall decent pass defense.
  • Kentucky is 13th in long plays from scrimmage

Most of Kentucky's struggles have been on offense, but one has to wonder if the decision to go with Jalen Whitlow, and the change of the offense from the Air Raid to a read option offense will work. I have pointed out repeatedly that I think we should run the Air Raid with Maxwell Smith, but the staff has apparently decided that Jalen Whitlow is their man, and they are just going to change the offense to suit him.

I am in no position to gainsay the staff on this point. They get paid cumulative millions of dollars to make this decision, and are infinitely more qualified to do so than I am. I must say that at times against the Gamecocks, the offense looked really good. The very pedestrian 123 yards on 36 carries is deceptive, as Kentucky had relatively few negative plays in Columbia, and 3.42 yards/carry when you aren't losing ground on many plays, or killing yourself with procedure penalties, is quite good enough. Against 2 top teams, Louisville and South Carolina, Kentucky has been solid, if not really impressive, in the ground game.

We have now seen on several occasions the pass/run ratio of the offense to be all out of whack for the Air Raid scheme. Saturday was no different: 24 passes for 178 yards against 36 rushes for 123 yards yields a 33% pass/run ratio, which in an Air Raid scheme should never be less than 60/40.

We saw numerous read option plays at South Carolina, more than we have ever seen before, so it's clear that Brown has made a significant schematic change while sticking with the Air Raid formations and routes. With that said, it is showing signs of potency, so I'll take the "wait and hope" position on it. If Brown can coach it, I don't care if we run the Veer. The danger in the read option, of course, is ballhandling errors leading to fumbles.

As the year goes on, and assuming we wind up less injured than in past years, the offense will definitely get better. That's just because Whitlow & Co. will become more comfortable running it, and Whitlow looked by far the best of his career at Kentucky this past weekend in terms of being in charge of the offense and understanding what to do.

The defense still has holes, and the front seven in general and defensive line in particular. If we can address the run defense, this team just might be dangerous by the end of the season.