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Previewing The Senior Day Game Between The 'Cats And The 'Dawgs

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Two teams coming off humbling defeats rendezvous in Lexington Saturday at noon ET. There can be only one.

Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

The Kentucky Wildcats host the Georgia Bulldogs Saturday with both teams battling for redemption at high noon EST. The Florida loss was as bad as it gets for at least a few Georgia fans. Last Saturday was pretty damn bad for UK too. The Wildcats suffered their third loss in a row, and the hangover has officially set in after bingeing on relatively weaker opponents in September and October. There won't be a reprieve this Saturday as Georgia is arguably the best offense UK has faced all season, and has shown steady improvement defensively (forgetting last week's result, natch).

ESPN FPI projects UK having a 20% chance to win but F+ is even lower.

Is it always darkest before the dawn? Or is it always darkest before going completely black? Anyone...anyone?

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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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Kentucky and Georgia Rankings

Measurement Kentucky Georgia Advantage
F+ Overall 63 (-0.6%) 20 (21.1%) UGA
F+ Offense 75 (-3.1%) 10 (14.7%) UGA
F+ Defense 49 (3.8%) 48 (4.6%) PUSH
F+ Special Teams 94 (-1.3%) 26 (1.8%) UGA
FEI Overall 65 11 UGA
S&P+ Overall 24 45 UGA
S&P+ Rushing Offense 40 3 UGA
S&P+ Rushing Defense 68 62 PUSH
S&P+ Passing Offense 60 25 UGA
S&P+ Passing Defense 38 50 UK

The advanced stats support Georgia as a strong favorite. They have a clear advantage across the board with the exception of both teams' defenses. Interestingly, the defenses are roughly equal, but UK is better at stopping the pass, while Georgia is slightly better at stopping the run. Despite being better against the pass, UK will still have a tough match-up against UGA's 25th ranked passing offense.

The stats do show some hope for UK's offense. S&P+ favors UK's rushing offense versus UGA's rushing defense, and the difference between UK's S&P+ passing offense and UGA's passing defense is within ten slots which I consider a near "push". If UK can successfully stay ahead of the chains, these stats tell me UK will have more opportunities than less to move the ball in the air with favorable down and distance conditions.

UK's Defense Versus Georgia's Offense

This match-up is the key to the game, in my opinion. UK must limit UGA first downs and keep their potent offense off the field. UGA will conceivably run the ball 30-40 times, and they are so talented in the backfield that at least 4-9 of those will spring for long runs if given that many opportunities. UK must limit first downs and get off the field, so its extremely important to perform on third down-and-medium or -long.

UK will see more 21, 12,  and 11 personnel than it has probably seen since LSU. Freshman Nick Chubb (who can get up a little bit) has performed admirably in the absence of then Heisman front-runner Todd Gurley. It sounds like fellow freshman Sony Michel will be healthy this weekend as well. Brendan Douglas, meanwhile, may be the best fourth string running back in the SEC (you can see why a talented back like Stanley "Boom" Williams chose to decommit from UGA).

UGA hasn't gone four or five-wide much this season due to receiver depth, and the advantages they've found with their power running game. Seniors Michael Bennett and Chris Conley are the main perimeter targets, and redshirt freshman tight end Jeb Blazevich will keep the linebackers honest. Freshman Isiah McKenzie only has six catches on the year, but he looks to be very dangerous returning punts and kick-offs. UK's secondary should be okay against this group, despite the loss of Blake McClain, but that prediction goes out the window if UGA finds success running the ball thereby setting up play-action.

Quarterback Hutson Mason has already beaten UK when Aaron Murray missed last year's game. He is not a dual-threat quarterback, and likely won't hurt UK on 3rd-and-long scrambles like Maty Mauk did last week. He may have enough elusiveness to avoid a single rusher in the pocket, but if multiple UK defenders beat their blockers they'll get some sacks. He has seemed to hesitate to release the ball in the few games I've watched this season. Hesitation is good for UK's rushers, and hopefully that continues this week.

A hesitant quarterback leads me to think UK will use a lot of blitzes Saturday, but UK's defense has reportedly focused on defending screens this week as UGA beat them to death with that play last season. So maybe not a lot of blitzing? In any case, UGA's prescription to beat UK seems fairly clear. Run the ball. Run the ball. Oh, and run the ball.

As reliable as UK's pass defense has been this year, its efficiency on standard downs has been more suspect. UK's defense wouldn't win over any hearts and minds just looking at the box score, but it does only give up 25 points per game on average which is fairly good (and God help me, I do love watching Dupree, AJ Stamps, and Stoops/Elliot's play-calling regardless of outcome). Bend but don't break will break against powerful offenses though. UGA will look to establish the run, and their offense, sadly, isn't inclined to turn the ball over. I like UK's odds in passing downs, but UK will have to stop the run to get to that point; otherwise, they'll require an unusual amount of turnovers to hold UGA's offense below their 40 point average.

UK's Offense Versus Georgia's Defense

Georgia's defense is using last week's game as motivation. I am skeptical UK will attempt to copy Florida and run UGA into the ground. After all, UGA's porous run defense last Saturday was an aberration compared to the entire season. UK should find some success running the ball, but expecting a Florida-like performance is too optimistic. Nonetheless, the offense probably plays better after last week's result and this week's practices.

UGA has very active linebackers but the defensive line is not as good as Missouri, MSU, or LSU's in my estimation. The lack of a NFL-bound nosetackle hurts Jeremy Pruitt's hybrid 3-4 defense in the interior. Nonetheless, they're certainly capable of negative plays like sacks and tackles for losses. Linebackers Amarlo Herrera, Jordan Jenkins, and Leonard Floyd are each nearly averaging 1 tackle for loss per game. That same posse are also nearly averaging 0.5 sack per game too, and the defense as a whole is getting 2.25 per game. UK can't let them get above their average if they hope to stay ahead of schedule. The offense is too fragile to get behind, and it's unfortunately inclined to do so.

Pruitt's secondary has had its up's and down's this year, and the defense is currently ranked lower than where it ended last season when UofL's current DC coached there, according to S&P+. Pruitt is a disciple of Nick Satan, um Saban, and so many of his principles will be on the field Saturday. The secondary will play aggressively at the line of scrimmage, and if in zone will likely show a pattern matching concept. UK's receivers see the same thing when scrimmaging against their own defensive teammates.

UGA will play aggressive at times with an additional safety rolled up to support the run, but also he'll also be there to take away quick passes. When that happens UK must take advantage of one-on-one match-ups against UGA cornerbacks on intermediate and deep throws. Senior Damian Swann (#5) is especially good in the secondary with three picks and forty tackles this season. I'm curious to see if UK challenges him.

Finding success running the ball, and forcing UGA to move away from a two deep safety look, is a necessity for explosive plays. UK managed this against MSU, not by their running backs finding rushing success, but by Patrick Towles running for nearly 100 yards. Whomever is responsible, hopefully Towles AND the running backs, it must happen for UK to find success with big plays on Saturday. A balanced offense will put up multiple touchdowns against UGA's defense, of that I have little doubt.

UK's offense is average (some may call that characterization charitable), but in this instance is facing an average defense. I suspect points will come barring turnovers and successfully running the ball most of the four quarters.

Comparing Track Records

Kentucky

Opponent F+ Offense F+ Defense Outcome
South Carolina
6 (18.4%) 125 (-15.2%) 45-38 (W)
Missouri
89 (-5.4%) 11 (14.7%) 10-20 (L)
Florida
67 (-1.1%) 30 (8.9%) 20-20* (L)

Georgia

Opponent F+ Offense F+ Defense Outcome
South Carolina
6 (18.4%)
125 (-15.2%)
35-38 (L)
Missouri 89 (-5.4%)
11 (14.7%)
34-0 (W)
Florida 67 (-1.1%)
30 (8.9%)
20-38 (L)

Good luck making sense of these comparisons between common opponents. South Carolina's terrible defense allows more points against UK's inferior offense compared to UGA. UGA goes to Missouri and absolutely blitzes them, while Mizzou handled UK easier than what the score states. UK arguably should have won in the Swamp, but Florida destroyed UGA at a neutral site.

I'm not sure what to make from this except that college teams can play at various levels on any given Saturday. Thoughts?

TL;DR

A week ago I felt like this was an excellent match-up for UK worth an upset pick. The egg laid at Missouri, coupled with UGA's destruction at the hands of Florida, make me less hesitant to pull the trigger. Additionally, UGA runs the ball incredibly well against a UK defense that can't get off the field at times. UK's offense should outperform most expectations and keep the game competitive.

The UK seniors, who have been through far too much adversity, will make their coaches, families, friends, and fans proud with their effort on Saturday but will ultimately lose barring multiple uncharacteristic turnovers by UGA.

UK 27 : UGA 35