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Previewing The Saturday Night Showdown Between The Wildcats and Tigers

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Wildcats versus Tigers. Upstart versus legacy program. Saturday night. An unforgiving environment. No pressure.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The Kentucky Wildcats are knocking on the door of bowl eligibility as the second half of the season kicks-off Saturday evening. A win against a struggling (by their standards) LSU Tigers team in magical Death Valley gets UK to six wins well before Keeneland closes. A big road victory continues UK football's reclamation project as overseen by Chief Architect, CEO, Foreman, and Wrecking Ball Operator Mark Stoops. We started from the bottom now we're here.

This game won't be easy. It's been pointed out this week by multiple sources that one does not simply walk into Death Valley on Saturday nights and win with Les Miles present, unless you're ranked number one in the country or eventually achieved that honor. Make no mistake: LSU is the best team UK has faced this season; Death Valley is the quintessential unforgiving road environment, and Mark Stoops has yet to achieve a road victory at UK.

Let's get to previewin'. BYOE (bring your own étoufée).

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F/+ ratings combine the S&P+ rankings and the FEI rankings. Ratings described:

The Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI) considers each of the nearly 20,000 possessions every season in major college football. All drives are filtered to eliminate first-half clock-kills and end-of-game garbage drives and scores. A scoring rate analysis of the remaining possessions then determines the baseline possession expectations against which each team is measured. A team is rewarded for playing well against good teams - win or lose; and is punished more severely for playing poorly against bad teams than it is rewarded for playing well against bad teams.

The S&P+ Ratings are a college football ratings system derived from both play-by-play and drive data from all 800+ of a season's FBS college football games (and 140,000+ plays). There are four key components to the S&P+

If interested, here is a glossary that might be helpful. Lastly, keep in mind that the F/+ percentage ratings measure every team against a perfectly average team. So, if the F/+ rating of a team is 0% that team is considered perfectly average by this rating system.

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The F/+ and S&P+ View

OVERALL

When UK Has the ball...

When LSU has the ball...

Category

UK

LSU

UK Off.

LSU Def.

UK Def.

LSU Off.

F/+ Overall

59 (3.0%)

35 (13.7%)

F/+ Offense

79 (-2.9)

42 (4.0%)

F/+ Defense

52 (3.4%)

35 (7.4%)

F/+ Special Teams

19 (2.6%)

23 (2.3%)

S&P+ Overall

62 (203.6)

14 (233.6)

55 (102.7)

15 (118.6)

62 (100.9)

21 (115.6)

Rushing S&P+ Rk

47 (112.6)

27 (120.5)

95 (90.2)

16 (128.3)

Passing S&P+ Rk

74 (97.0)

13 (135.1)

80 (95.6)

27 (122.7)

LSU nearly has a clean sweep in all the categories listed in the table above with the exception of UK's slight edge in special teams. The Tiger defense appears to have "The Mustangs" to slow UK's offense. UK's defense also appears outmatched by LSU's running and passing game. So why even play the game?

Because "the Devil is in the details".

UK Defense Versus LSU Offense

The discrepancy between LSU's pass offense and UK's pass defense is not as wide as the stats portray in my judgement. This week UK is ranked 80th, but prior to the UL-Monroe game, that ranking was far lower at 17th. That seems like a long fall for only allowing 187 passing yards against the Warhawks. The pass defense remains UK's underrated strength. Solid coverage and an aggressive pass rush compliment each other and UK has both.

LSU just so happens to be dealing with inconsistent quarterback play this season. The pro-style offense doesn't fit their young quarterbacks' abilities just yet and it's shown. Mark Stoops and DJ Elliot will almost certainly attempt to confuse and disrupt Anthony Jennings like Auburn had success doing. Jennings does have extremely talented, but also young, receivers Travin Dural and Malachi Dupre as targets. They both have the ability to make big plays, so it becomes even more important that UK minimizes their catches because they will be targeted - a lot. Expect heavy blitzing and disguising of coverages on obvious passing downs by Mark Stoops and DJ Elliot. UK may have to gamble more to stop the run, so the play of the secondary is all the more vital.

LSU will also run some zone reads and roll-outs for Jennings, so UK defenders must stay assignment sound. If gap integrity is lost, and Jennings is able to scramble, all the hard work done on earlier downs gets wiped out. UK must force Jennings to beat them with his arm in order to win this game.

LSU's run game is another beast all together. UK's rush defense looked better last week holding UL-Monroe to 77 yards, but the memories are still fresh from South Carolina gashing UK for 282 yards on the ground. LSU's ground attack is led by Leonard Fournette who you may remember as the best high school player in last year's class. He may well be the second coming of Adrian Peterson, and UK is fortunate to face him relatively early in his college career. Fournette is backed up by two talented seniors, Kenny Hilliard and Terrence Magee, who can also do damage.

LSU runs a pro-style blocking scheme similar to the Florida squad that put up approximately 200 yards rushing on UK in regulation (on the bright side, UK's second best adjusted defensive performance was against Florida, according to FEI).  I also noticed a zone blocking package at times for Fournette. We'll find out Saturday night how much UK's rushing defense has improved since South Carolina's zone blocking scheme, and running back Mike Davis, nearly did enough to beat UK two weeks ago. We say it every week but gap integrity, taking good angles, and solid tackling are crucial. LSU's offensive line, fullback, and tailbacks will be very physical, and seem to be a mismatch for UK's linebackers who are built more for speed than head-on power running. This game will be a good measure for the progress of Josh Forrest, Khalid  Henderson, and Ryan Flannigan.

UK's defense has given up a lot of yards this season, but crucially not a lot of points. They are officially a "bend but don't break" defense, but of the odd variety that blitzes often and avoids a vanilla scheme. Go figure, right? UK hopes to cause one negative play, and get an offense in an obvious passing situation; at which point they trust their secondary and pass-rushers to do the rest. Sure, an offense may march 45 yards down the field and get a few first downs, but UK is just waiting for a negative play to occur in order to set up a punt one or two plays down the road.

LSU will likely be able to successfully run the ball and chew up clock; thereby limiting UK offensive possessions and potentially wearing down the defense. UK has been very good at creating turnovers this season, and they'll need a couple Saturday night to erase what will probably be long LSU drives.

UK Offense Versus LSU Defense

UK's offense will also struggle, according to these stats. UK's ground game should be able to expose LSU's soft interior and poor tackling at times, but whether it's able to do so regularly is another question. LSU fans I've spoken to have questioned whether their front seven has improved as the season has progressed. In LSU's defense, they've faced top ten rushing attacks in Mississippi State and Auburn. They are a battle-hardened bunch, and judging them based on previous outcomes won't be completely fair.

UK may attempt to exploit LSU's rush defense by running Towles more than most UK fans will be comfortable with watching. Towles doesn't have the wheels of Dak Prescott or Nick Marshall - who respectively rushed for 105 and 124 yards against LSU - but Jeff Driskel was also able to get 71 yards rushing against LSU last week. I think a Towles-Driskel comparison is fair (in terms of running abilities), and UK may look for more design quarterback runs in the form of zone reads, quarterback draws, and roll-outs with pass options. Hopefully Towles keeps in mind that he can slide to avoid contact, and continues to reliably make the correct reads.

Another option is, of course, the Wildcat package. The Wildcat gets UK an extra blocker inside, and UK's willingness to throw out of the package - whether it works beautifully (Towles to Ryan Timmons against South Carolina) or worse than the Hindenburg (Jojo Kemp to UL-Monroe defender) - will force LSU to play it honest at least to start. UK will be more effective running directly at LSU than sweeps to the outside that play off the Tiger's strengths in lateral speed. There may be few attempts at the sweeps involving Demarco Robinson and Ryan Timmons Saturday and on paper that's a good thing.

UK's passing game will be facing it's toughest secondary to date. Several different defensive backs have interceptions for the Tigers, and most of them will wind up playing on Sundays. The LSU defense is built to stop spread offenses, and so naturally poses schematic issues for UK in Neal Brown's 3- and 4-Wide offensive sets. The secondary is young, and UK has a nation-leading penchant for explosive plays, so UK should have opportunities.

Watching the LSU-Florida game, the Gators challenged LSU deep on several occasions, and better thrown balls could have resulted in big plays. Patrick Towles and crew will get their opportunities but they must capitalize on them. Neal Brown undoubtedly saw the same things on film as Florida coordinator Kurt Roper did, and UK has the receivers and quarterback to reliably throw deep against most teams.

Another important factor is UK's offensive line play. Their performance will be instrumental in running the ball, but they must also pick up the potentially exotic array of blitzing done by John Chavis' defense. They will probably be competitive in the former, but did have varying degrees of trouble with the latter when facing UL-Monroe's blitzing scheme last week. LSU's personnel is several steps above the Warhawks obviously. To UK's offensive line's credit, they settle down after the first quarter for the most part last week. Points are at a premium Saturday, and there can be no slow starts against the Tigers.

UK's offense must operate consistently and limit turnovers for UK to win. UK will probably have some success when running directly at the Tigers. LSU likes to play its defensive backs tight on receivers, and that may lead to more hand-offs on UK's combo plays. Towles on roll-outs and designed runs will earn yards, and could keep UK ahead of the chains. The deep pass will probably be there, if UK establishes the run, especially if a defensive back is left alone on the backside against Javess Blue, Blake Bone, or other mismatches Neal Brown can engineer involving Ryan Timmons. UK must take advantage when gifted these opportunities. Even if it doesn't result in points, big plays can flip the field and contribute to the field position battle.


Comparing Track Records

Kentucky's Performances
Opponent Off. S&P+ Def. S&P+ Outcome
Florida 41 (106.4) 40 (108.6) 36-30 (L)
South Carolina 22 (114.5) 57 (103.2) 45-38 (W)
UL-Monroe 121 (82.9) 88 (95.3) 48-14 (W)

LSU's Performances
Opponent Off. S&P+ Def. S&P+ Outcome
Wisconsin 35 (112.0) 27 (111.8) 28-24 (W)
Florida 41 (106.4) 40 (108.6) 30-27 (L)
UL-Monroe 121 (82.9) 88 (95.3) 31-0 (W)

UK and LSU share two common opponents in Florida and UL-Monroe, and South Carolina and Wisconsin have similar enough ratings that some rough comparison can be drawn.  LSU not only won in the Swamp when UK was unable, and did so despite giving up a special teams touchdown. If LSU prevents that touchdown, Florida could have ended the game with 20 points which is what UK held the Gators to in regulation.

But, LSU held Florida's offense to approximately 200 fewer yards than UK managed. Encouragingly, UK's offense outperformed LSU's offense by 150 yards against a Florida defense that arguably was playing better at the time. Looking at the Florida-LSU game suggests UK and LSU are equally matched teams despite their very different styles.

LSU flat-out dominated UL-Monroe holding them to 93 total yards to UK's 264. The point totals are roughly similar if you cancel out UK's two defensive touchdowns, but statistically LSU's performance is vastly more impressive. This is a common theme with UK's defense this season (and a reason why the per drive FEI rating system prefers UK to the per play rating system of S&P+, the exact opposite from last season), so it's tougher to parse this result in my view.

TL;DR

I expect UK to play well and fight until the end, but UK's inconsistent offense, and the defense's inability to stop the run, likely prevents a great road win. Hoping for turnovers, regularly creating explosive plays, and relying on great special teams play is a gamble in Death Valley on Saturday nights. LSU is just a little bit better.

LSU 27: UK 20