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Preview Kentucky Wildcats vs South Carolina Gamecocks

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The biggest game in the Mark Stoops era occurs tomorrow night. UK will face its toughest challenge yet in the young season.

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Last Saturday's game against Vanderbilt was the first "must win" game of the Mark Stoops era at the University of Kentucky. The stakes don't get any lower this weekend, as Saturday night's game against South Carolina (SC) is - make no mistake - an important opportunity to firmly establish the beginning of a new era in UK football. Beating lesser teams regularly is a requirement achieved by mediocre programs, but beating teams that are better is what makes one "good".

Look at Rich Rodriguez at Arizona. He took over a forgettable program with scant history, but his teams proceeded to knock-off a Top 10 team every year for the last three years. That success gets attention from fans, recruits, and other teams. His program has to be taken seriously now.

The game against SC is that type of opportunity for UK. It's time to serve notice. Not later this fall against another SEC team, but now with all eyes on the program. Beating SC gets UK over the crest of this unruly wave the team is surfing. It provides important breathing room going forward, and opens up a new realm of possibilities for this season. UK winning this game serves as proof that Mark Stoops is ahead of schedule. Saying #WhyNot will have some irrefutable substance behind it for the college football world.

With a victory, UK would stand at 4-1 (with a high probability of 5-1 since UK faces UL-Monroe next Saturday) and 2-1 in the SEC East. The SEC East is either chaos incarnate or the perfect example of parity depending on how you look at things. A 2-1 UK team plants itself firmly in the conversation of how the division ultimately shakes out.  UK losing doesn't mean the end of the world, but it delays the rebuilding project and hinders momentum.

...Well, since I'm four paragraphs in maybe I should actually start this preview.

Importantly, these ratings are taking into account performances from the first four weeks and preseason data, so a grain of salt is required. As the season progresses, and more data is accumulated, the numbers should gain more accuracy.

F/+ ratings combine the S&P+ rankings and the FEI rankings. This is how those ratings are 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.

The F/+ and S&P+ View

OVERALL

When UK Has the ball...

When SC has the ball...

Category

UK

SC

UK Off

SC Def

UK Def

SC Off

F/+ Rk (Overall)

76 (-3.3%)

26 (11.7%)

F/+ Rk Change

73 (-3)

23 (-3)

S&P+ (Overall)

56 (204.7)

26 (225.5)

FEI (Overall)

82 (-0.080)

30 (0.143)

S&P+ Rk (Overall)

56 (204.7)

26 (225.5)

85 (96.7)

34 (109.9)

42 (108.0)

22 (115.6)

Rushing S&P+ Rk

51 (0.507)

104 (0.537)

29 (0.425)

57 (0.502)

Passing S&P+ Rk

70 (0.523)

78 (0.529)

13 (0.415)

53 (0.551)

According to Football Outsiders, this has the makings of a great game with a superior team taking on an average team on its home field. SC has the edge in the overall rankings, but when digging into the more fundamental variables like Rushing and Passing S&P+, UK holds an advantage on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. I'm not sure why the parts don't add up to equal the whole, but this isn't unique in F/+ right now. Preseason projections possibly?

SC, despite seemingly at a disadvantage facing UK's run defense, will look to establish the run and will likely find at least some success. Mike Davis is one of the best running backs in the SEC. SC's power run game is led by a good, if not inconsistent, offensive line with All-SEC guard AJ Cann at the helm. SC will also direct snap to receiver Pharoh Cooper in a Wildcat-type package behind a wall of 10 blockers as a wrinkle in its running game. This will be Melvin Lewis, Za'Darius Smith, and Mike Douglas' biggest challenge yet. Josh Forrest, Khalid Henderson, and Ryan Flannigan must make proper reads, take good angles, and finish plays with solid tackling. Mike Davis will get his yards, but UK must do its best to limit them as much as possible.

SC's quarterback will be senior Dylan Thompson who has put up great numbers this season, and his fleet of tall, physical receivers will pose a challenge to UK's secondary. Coverage breakdowns will happen from time-to-time, but UK's secondary must limit those negative plays against the likes of Nick Jones, Shaq Roland, and Rory Anderson. Most of all, they must tackle in space and bring down SC's comparably bigger receivers. UK will lose if SC founds success in the short-passing game. If SC turns 3 yard receptions into 10 yard gains after missed tackles, things will head downhill tout de suite. It hurts field position, makes blitzing harder, gives Thompson more confidence, and sets up UK for a well-timed deep passes by The Ol' Ball Coach.

SC appears susceptible to defensive pressure, and UK just so happens to love blitzing this season. Thompson's fundamentals breakdown with a defender or two in his face (as do most QB's). He has a tendency to force passes, or be off target in those circumstances. UK's blitzing regime could be effective, but the defense must be successful on early downs to set up the blitz. If UK is able to foment mayhem by only rushing four players and dropping seven all the better.

UK is more adept at passing than the rankings would lead one to believe, and will seek to exploit SC's young - but improving - cornerbacks. UK will seek to improve upon it's paltry 43% Success Rate (i.e. 50 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third and fourth down) against a SC defense that is slowly fixing its form tackling issues and coverage breakdowns. UK must have the Patrick Towles from the Florida game. He must be accurate on his throws, read the defensive scheme, and execute ruthlessly. As Kyle Tucker pointed out this week, SC has penchant of giving up big plays. The Gamecock defense is getting better, but UK has to wring out any remaining vulnerabilities.

A likely area for explosive plays may come from UK's running game. UK's running game is not great in short yardage, but its backs have the speed and vision to go on big runs. Meanwhile, SC's run defense has been pretty porous so far this season. This is important as it can keep UK on schedule and ahead of the chains. Braylon Heard, Jojo Kemp, Mikel Horton, and Josh Clemons are all capable of explosive plays against South Carolina. UK's offensive line must prevent SC's defensive linemen Gerald Dixon, and JT Surratt among others from causing negative plays. If they can get to the second level and put a hat on Skai Moore or Sharrod Golightly, I like UK's running backs chances one-on-one versus SC's safeties.

Comparing Track Records

Kentucky's Performances

Opponent

Off. S&P+

Def. S&P+

Outcome

Ohio

88 (96)

102 (92.9)

20-3 (W)

Florida

21 (115.6)

63 (101.5)

36-30 (L)

Vanderbilt

102 (92.1)

64 (101.5)

17-7 (W)

South Carolina's Performances

Opponent

Off. S&P+

Def. S&P+

Outcome

Texas A&M

15 (118.5)

14 (117)

52-28 (L)

East Carolina

30 (113.3)

62 (101.9)

33-23 (W)

Georgia

8 (123.0)

44 (105.8)

38-35 (W)

Missouri

63 (101.8)

26 (112)

21-20 (L)

The above chart illustrates the outcomes of UK and SC's previous match-ups against SEC opponents. SC has clearly faced much tougher competition than UK. It's faced two Top 20 offenses and two nearly Top 25 defenses. The best unit UK has faced was Florida's offense which may be over ranked at the moment (if not, then SC and UF's offenses are rated nearly identical).  Looking solely at these numbers suggest UK's defense is similar to the Georgia team that SC scored 38 points against a few weeks ago. UK's offense isn't rated as high as any of the teams listed here, suggesting a lower point total than the 20 points Mizzou managed last Saturday.  In short, the numbers show SC winning approximately 42-17.

If you look further down into the numbers of SC's opponents that score Saturday may actually be closer. Like above, the overall S&P+ tells a different story than the fundamental factors. For example, Georgia's (defensive) Run S&P+ is 49th compared to UK's 29th ranking, and its (defensive) Passing S&P+ is 70th compared to UK's 13th. UK has far better Run and Passing S&P+ defense than Missouri too. Mizzou held SC to 119 yards rushing.

Offensively, UK is not rated as highly as SC's prior opponents; however, UK's 51st ranked Rushing S&P+ is comparable to a Mizzou team (ranked 58th) that rushed for 150 yards last week. UK's explosiveness rating and Success Rate is not as good as any of SC's prior opponents, but it does have a similar Passing Downs S&P+ to Georgia and one superior to Mizzou. Neither of those teams passed for over 200 yards or converted more than 35% of its 3rd downs against SC's defense. These rankings suggest UK could eclipse UGA and Mizzou in those fields.

One way to read UK's offensive ratings, if you're looking at the bright-side, is that UK's offense would be thought much more highly of if it had converted its trips into the red zone against Ohio, or if it had scored one more touchdown against Vanderbilt. Possibly UK's offensive ratings are artificially lower than they should be if you believe UK has previously had cautious game plans.

On the other hand, SC's defense has played far tougher offenses than UK. It bounced back from a tough A&M loss to hold a very good East Carolina offense to 23 points. Outside of the late fourth quarter, its defense bottled Mizzou's offense.

TL;DR

Going off these numbers SC probably scores in the 24-31 point range if you place more value in the "under the hood" stats rather than just the overall ratings. UK, meanwhile, probably scores in the 17-24 point range. SC is the more talented team overall, and has its back against the wall with last week's loss. A rationally minded person probably would see this as a 7-14 point SC victory.

...But, UK is playing with confidence right now. Coaches can easily raise player expectations when they are confident. Players tend to have good weeks of practice when they have high expectations, and all reports indicate UK has practiced well this week.

The defense is playing with an attitude, and the offense will have opportunities against this SC defense. Also, funny things happen from time-to-time when a hungry program is on the cusp of ascendance to the next rung in the ladder.

UK 27 : SC 24 (but don't bet on that)