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Kentucky Football: Might Be Something to This Offense

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Is the offense catching more than its share of heat?

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

It was somewhat surprising to see the advanced metrics favor the Kentucky Wildcats offense compared to UK's defense. It makes a certain amount of sense given the defense's propensity to give up yards, but it's been play-calling, errant throws, drops, and blocking failures that have garnered a lot - fair to say most? - of our attention.

First, About The Team As A Whole...

I went back and dug up this old post from Bill C. from early 2014. In it, he breaks down which factors correlated the strongest to wins and losses over the span of 811 games in 2013. The first thing that stands out is explosiveness measured by yards per play margin (UK's average yards per play minus opponent's average yard per play).

Essentially, if a team wins the yards per play battle by as little as 0.1 yards, a team's odds for victory rises from 50% to 55%. If that margin increases just a bit more, the odds of victory rise substantially. UK has won the yards per play margin on two occasions this season: versus UL-L and versus Mizzou.

The fact South Carolina had a 0.88 yards per play margin versus Kentucky, corresponding to a Gamecock 80.2% win of the time, is another reason to consider UK's record as "lucky" as I did last week. It's interesting that UK's odds of beating Florida were actually higher than beating South Carolina, especially since large swaths of BBN would say UK played worse against Florida.

Yards Per Play Margin

Kentucky

Opponent

Margin

(UL-L) 7.25

5.44

1.81

(SCAR) 5.96

6.84

-0.88

(UF) 3.71

4.15

-0.44

(Mizzou) 5.68

4.97

0.71

If UK's offense wasn't hitting on explosive plays (runs of 10 plus yards and passes of 15 plus yards) that margin would be much lower. Likewise, the defense is preventing explosive plays but giving up yardage. The advanced stats back this up. UK's offense is ranked 15th in explosive plays, but is also a terrible 115th on efficiency (efficiency on standard downs). The defense has a nearly identical gap.

The Offense Is Doing Alright...And Getting Better?

In order to know if the offense is holding up its part of the bargain, let's now measure if UK outperform its competition's other opponents on a per-play basis.

Competition's Defensive Performances - Yards Per Play
Opponent Game 1 Game 2 Game 3 Game 4 Season Average S&P+ Defensive Ranking

UL-L

7.25 (UK)

5.2

6.45

N/A

6.3

117th

SCAR

6.88

5.96 (UK)

9.14

3.77

6.4

66th

Florida

3.92

4.16

3.71 (UK)

5.99

4.45

28th

Mizzou

3.14

2.89

3.82

5.68 (UK)

3.88

27th


The table shows UK's average yards-per-play were higher than their opponent's season average against UL-Lafayette and against Missouri. UK's 5.96 yards-per-play against South Carolina is below their season average, but the Gamecocks' average is likely inflated due to playing North Carolina (whose offense is ranked 46th in S&P+ offense) and Georgia (whose offense is ranked 10th in S&P+ offense) in a four game sample size.

Encouragingly, UK's best offensive performance was against the best defense it has faced this season in Missouri, according to S&P+. Which leads me to my next thought: this is still a young offense overall, and early season hiccups may have been overblown. We can draw conclusions as the season progresses, but so far the only egg this offense has laid this season was against Florida. And then one week later, against an equally strong defense going by S&P+ rankings, UK played its best game yet.

The offense has some breathing room to get better before facing some tough defenses. Eastern Kentucky is a FCS team, Auburn's defense is currently ranked 54th in S&P+, and Mississippi State ranks 52nd. UK has until October 31st, when it hosts Tennessee, before it faces a Top-30 caliber defense; further underscoring how important improvement in October will mean for November's competition.

At the moment, the advanced stats say Tennessee and Florida's defenses are nearly identical making the Halloween game against the Volunteers a potential measuring stick for offensive progress.