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Building A Viable Football Program: Part Three

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Part Three compares UK's progress to the benchmarks established last season. Bottom line: the offense improved but the defense only improved marginally. The result is a program that is a bit behind other schools that recently rebuilt in Year 2.

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

There is a saying, sometimes attributed to Zhou Enlai, that by the mid-20th century, it was still too early to know what the effects were from the French Revolution that took place two hundred years earlier. Zhou's point being that outcomes from events are easier to identify, distinguish, and measure the further we are away from them. The same is true for rebuilding football programs like the one Mark Stoops actively pursued two years ago at the University of Kentucky.

This series is an attempt to measure the rebuilding effort, not on a tweet-by-tweet, game-by-game, or even a month-by-month basis, but rather through the wider lens of each season. For example, a month of poor tackling gets a lot of media and blog focus, but how much does it matter in the long-run? This approach hopes to eliminate quotidian factors entirely, and hopefully bring into focus long-term trends.

Comparing This Season To Last Season

Below is a chart that combines raw and advanced data. Click on Part I if you want to see the 2012 numbers.  This will provide an even wider perspective.

2014 2013 Difference
Points per game 29.2 20.5 +8.7
Points allowed 31.3 31.2 -0.1
Yards per game 384 341 +43
Yards allowed 407 427 +20
Yards per play 5.43 5.29 +0.14
Per play allowed 5.50 6.3 +0.8
Turnovers lost 15 15 0
Turnovers forced 23 15 +8
Sacks allowed 36 37 +1
Sacks forced 27 23 +4
F+ Ranking 83rd 97th +14
S&P+ Ranking 63rd 93rd +30
FEI Ranking 76th 95th +19
S&P+ Offense Ranking 52nd 81st +29
S&P+ Defense Ranking 63rd 98th +35

As you can see, there's almost all positive differences between this season and the last. Offensively, you can see lots of areas of moderate improvement with the exception of the sacks allowed still too high a number. Turnovers lost stayed flat at 15, but that was also good enough for third in total lost turnovers in the SEC this year. I'll take it.

Defensively, the team barely improved, according to the raw stats, with the exception of forcing 8 more turnovers. Still allowing over 400 yards of offense on average is pretty bad, and the defense still allowed 31 points per game. At its best, the defense was a "bend but don't break" style that even if it succeeded usually left the offense in poor field position. At it's worst...well, it was pretty bad. All this despite returning 8 starters makes the performance even more disappointing.

So, why is Neal Brown seeming to get so much of the blame on message board forums again? I believe the prevailing perception is skewed. If the defense improved as much as the offense did then UK would have gotten another month of practice, and would be preparing for a bowl game. UK's offense did enough to beat Mississippi State and Georgia, but the defense didn't hold serve. I'd also argue scoring 27 offensive points against UofL should have been enough to outscore the Cardinals as well. When you add the 14 defensive points, I feel even stronger about that argument.

It should be noted that the advanced stats thought that both units improved substantially from last season. So, even if the raw stats showed some improvement, when factoring in their strength of schedule - and other variables - they look even better.

Ascending To The Next Tier

Now, let's update UK's progress compared to other programs who were recently rebuilt.  I chose them as UK's benchmarks because it happened recently,  first-time head coaches in a P5 conference, and their P5 membership (with emphasis on the SEC).  For more information click on Part I linked above.

Variables selected are: number of losses by 14 points or less, average margin of loss (both of these borrowed from Kyle Tucker at the Courier-Journal), Rivals' recruiting rankings, and the number of scholarship seniors on the team (to include fifth year seniors). Caveats regarding recruiting rankings and limited sample size apply.

Year 1 Record Rivals' Ranking Avg. margin in losses Losses by 14 points or less # of scholarship seniors
Kentucky (2013) 2-10 29 (3.05) 19.6 5 13
Stanford (2007) 4-8 51 (2.63) 18.75 5 17
Michigan (2011) 10-2 21 (3.25) 11 2 18
Vanderbilt (2011) 6-6 71 (2.71) 11.83 4 19
Ole Miss (2012) 6-6 40 (2.95) 15.1 3 17
Auburn (2013) 11-1 8 (3.57) 14 1 15

This above chart reminds us of  last year. Sorry. Only 13 seniors speaks to the terrible roster management conducted by the previous regime, but a strong recruiting class will probably pay dividends once those players mature in 2-3 years.

Year 2 Record Rivals' Ranking Avg. margin in losses Losses by 14 points or less # of scholarship seniors
Kentucky (2014) 5-7 projected 20-30 (3.1-3.3) 19.71 4 17-19
Stanford (2008) 5-7 50 (2.71) 16.83 4 17
Michigan (2012) 8-4 7 (3.56) 13.25 3 18
Vanderbilt (2012) 8-4 29 (3.14) 18.25 3 20
Ole Miss (2013) 7-5 7 (3.56) 9 4 22
Auburn (2014) 8-4 projected 7-10 (3.4-3.5) 14 2 22

By Year 2, the listed benchmarks' losses by 14 points or less grew to roughly 75%, but for UK this season that number was 57%. This explains why UK's average margin of loss actually increased from last season, and was far higher than the other programs by the second year of their new coach. UK got blown out too often in its defeats.

By themselves, these are not signs of progress for an accelerated rebuild akin to conference foe Vanderbilt. UK must be more competitive in Year 3. Losses will certainly happen, but if Year 3 doesn't see average margin in losses decrease by at least a touchdown, I'd start becoming concerned about programmatic stagnation.

Encouragingly, though, UK had the lowest number of seniors for the second year in a row which is further evidence that the hole UK has to crawl out of was deeper, and how the roster mismanagement of Joker Phillips continues to echo. Also important, UK is projected to sign a better recruiting class in Year 2 than its other benchmarks besides the traditional powers.

Year 3 Record Rivals' Ranking Avg. margin in losses Losses by 14 or less # of scholarship seniors
Kentucky (2015) -- -- -- -- projected 20
Stanford (2009) 8-4 20 (3.27) 6.4 5 23
Michigan (2013) 7-5 5 (3.63) 6.8 4 16
Vanderbilt (2013) 8-4 19 (3.15) 11.5 3 21
Ole Miss (2014) 9-3 15-25 (3.3-3.7) 12 2 19
Auburn (2015) -- -- -- -- --

What I said about Year 3 last season:

By Year 3, successful programs have a solid foundation and have broken through to the next tier of stable and viable football programs. They are healthy and self-sustaining. The defeats become infrequent but are competitive. It's a year like this that serves as a springboard to BCS bids in subsequent years.

There's still some truth to that, but it certainly isn't as assured as I thought back then. Look at the step back Michigan took this season, or how fall Vandy fell despite having the same players James Franklin had recruited and developed. Success that comes after Year 3 is fragile. Maintaining success is complicated and precarious.

For UK, at least it is projected to have a 20 man senior class. Recruiting will likely be in the Top 30, and with a bowl season could see that final ranking fall into the teens. My big question is when will UK stop being blown out? It would take a big jump to see the average margin in losses fall into single digits by next season and Mark Stoops' Year 3.

Wrapping It Up

UK's offense took a moderate-size step forward this season, and it did so with a bevy of inexperience and first year starters. The defense's improvement was only marginal. Without causing 8 more turnovers it could be argued the defense didn't improve at all.

UK is also a bit behind its benchmarks in Year 2. A bowl game would have eased the pain of the season by a large amount, but the fact would still remain that it got blown out all too often. However, recruiting is staying strong and the last heavy attrition class has graduated.

In Part Four, which I hope to get out by the end of the week, I'll take a closer look at the roster demographics. Think of it like an update to Part Two published last year.