The current four-game losing streak has seen Kentucky's defense allow roughly 1,800 yards of total offense. For perspective, those four games account for 50% of all yards allowed in nine games this season. The Mississippi State and Tennessee games account for 30% of this season's allowed yards alone.
It's been a rough month.
Mark Stoops was explicitly hired by Mitch Barnhart because he wanted a defensive-minded coach for league play. This was the correct decision. Looking across the college football landscape, the best teams tend to have great defenses. Just look at this season for example.
In 2015, the best teams all have great defenses (e.g. Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State), and teams with great defenses but average offenses have been able to punch above their weight (e.g. Michigan and Florida). Teams with great offenses but average defenses tend to eventually get exposed (e.g. Texas Tech, TCU, and Arkansas). Defense still wins championships most years.
Given UK's recent slide in the rankings, it's worth scrutinizing UK's defensive effort in 9 games this year as compared to last season. It's a fair question: has the former ace defensive coordinator overseen an improvement in UK's defense?
The Advanced Stats
The advanced stats make it clear UK has gotten worse on defense so far this season by a very large margin. There's evidence within their systems to explain in which specific areas UK has declined. UK's defense has been routinely poor on standard downs which usually translates to being poor against the run. The passing defense has also declined precipitously in the last month against some good offenses, but also against average at best passing offenses like Georgia and Auburn.
Lastly, UK barely registers a blip on the Havoc Rate monitor this season. Nine games into 2014 UK had 54 tackles for loss and 23 sacks. Nine games into 2015, and UK has 37 tackles for loss and just 13 sacks. UK's inability to generate pressure only rushing four players results in hurting a passing defense forced to blitz individuals out of hte back seven. It's not easy replacing 2015 NFL first round draft pick Bud Dupree and third round draft pick Za'Darius Smith when you aren't a top twenty program. It doesn't help that Jason Hatcher has missed playing time this season.
UK's defense is also allowing three fewer points per game this season after not showing any improvement between Stoops' first and second seasons. That's not an argument UK's defense has done enough, but in the single metric that counts, UK has shown marginal improvement.
It can probably be explained by a few factors. First, the most straightforward ones. UK's defense is ranked 17th in the country allowing explosive plays. Last season the defense was ranked 86th. Even taking into account the last month, UK's defense does not give up very many big plays relative to other teams. Opposing offenses are typically forced to march down the field which leaves them vulnerable to poor execution, penalties, and other miscues.
UK's defense is also above average in terms of not allowing teams to finish drives inside UK's 40 yard line. UK's defense allows on average 4.3 points per trip inside its 40 yard line, and the national average is 4.6 points per trip. Inside the red zone, UK is allowing either touchdowns or field goals on 31 of 41 occasions for 76%. Last season, UK's red zone defense allowed points 93% of the time an offense made it into the red zone. More field goals are a good thing as, over time, they are essentially failures.
UK's defense is also allowing 42% conversion on third downs (against Georgia it was 38% and in September it was 31%). There's been one game this season where UK's competition had over a 50% third down success. In 2014, UK gave up third down conversions 44% of the time with five games over 50% third down success.
That's classic bend-don't-break defense. Give up a lot of yards over the course of a long drive, then wait for a combination of an offense sputtering out and the defense making three positive plays in a row.
Maybe Last Year's Was Even Worse Than We Thought
Here's the more debatable point: UK's defense was even worse last year than most realize, and its artificially boosted stats eclipse UK's improvement this season. For example, UK's Havoc Rate numbers are helped by 12 tackles for loss and four sacks in a single game against UL-Monroe.
Additionally, UK's defense forced 23 turnovers in 2014 (as well as six defensive touchdowns, which further boosted last year's offense to the tune of three more points per game on average). That was the most in the SEC last season, and went a long way towards wiping out offensive gains. This season, UK has only forced 12 turnovers in nine games. The Chaos Gods have forsaken the Wildcats.
In my estimation, the marginal improvement is more of a personnel issue than a coaching problem. This limits how much improvement UK could reasonably expect on the defensive side of the ball in 2015. The front seven this year has a limited ceiling, but don't mistake that as a "development" problem either.
Josh Forrest and Khalid Henderson have come a long way in two seasons. Ryan Flannigan, too, despite only being on campus for 15 months. Individuals on the defensive line have improved by leaps and bounds under defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh (Mike Douglas, Donte Rumph, Farrington Huguenin, and CJ Johnson). These players have steadily improved, but just aren't good enough, and never will be, to punch above their weight routinely.
There's also the issue of timelines and talent. Ask yourself this: why has UK signed five JUCO defensive linemen in three seasons? Part of the reason is because 17 year-old defensive linemen generally take years to contribute. If UK was signing the same star averages of defensive linemen as it was signing skill positions then some of them would be able to contribute earlier (like Matt Elam and Denzil Ware in their second season). UK is still relying on the JUCO ranks because UK has only had two full cycles to sign quality defensive linemen.
This is a reason Stoops & Co.'s recruiting has me optimistic about the future. They've proven they can develop players that were less-heralded out of high school, and turn them into contributors. Once the staff is able to pair blue-chip defensive linemen with the blue-chip talent they've gotten in the back seven, the run defense will get better. They'll be developing players who come into college with higher ceilings.
When you have a program largely comprised of three star recruits the tendency is to have longer development timelines. They typically need three or more years of development to reliably beat SEC competition. Their two-deep rosters are comprised largely of seniors, juniors, and a smattering of fifth year seniors, and talented underclassmen.
Also keep in mind, Stoops' first recruiting class was thrown together in six weeks on the cusp of a 2-10 season without infrastructure upgrades on paper, and several good in-state players graduating that season. It'd be unfair to put them on the same pedestal as his last two classes. Adjust any high expectations for next year's seniors when they face teams like Georgia, Tennessee, and Florida next year in other words.
Conclusion and Look Ahead
This isn't a cry for more patience. This isn't a call for probably some decent fellow to lose his job. It's really not even a compliment to the staff in several ways.
It's simply this: UK's defense has marginally improved in several metrics while leaving a lot of room for improvement in other areas while highlighting the good development work the defensive staff has done the last three seasons.
The potentially good news in the near-term is the defense, in my view, will be the biggest driver to getting UK to the postseason. The Correction Man cometh, and UK's defensive performance against Georgia's offense makes that assessment appear just as promising as a week ago. The numbers are poised to improve further the next two weeks, but if UK's defense doesn't hold Vandy and Charlotte in check a regression would be unequivocal.