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Kentucky Football: Measuring Progress (Or Lack Thereof)

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8 games down with 4 games left to go. Where do the Cats stack up relative to their 2014 incarnation, but also the upcoming competition?

Bryan Lynn-USA TODAY Sports

The Kentucky Wildcats enter November with a 4-4 record. A record many in Big Blue Nation would have eagerly accepted in the preseason.

Funny, then, how fluid expectations can be as a season progresses - myself included first and foremost. Two blowout losses in a row can do a lot to everyone's morale. The specter of a second late-season collapse in as many years is troubling. Not so much because UK is losing, but because of how it is losing.

Assuming we've reached the dark bottom of Pandora's Box, and we've run out of evil spirits, let me now try and provide a little hope.

2015 Progress

Here's a statistical snapshot of the 2015 season so far compared to the 2014 season [Note: UK scored 6 defensive touchdowns last year resulting in 36 extra points. I've adjusted UK's average points per game to reflect points only scored by the offense].

Metric 2014 (12 games) 2015 (through 8 games) Difference
Points per game 26.2* 24.3 -1.9
Points per game allowed 31.2 29.1 +2.1
Average margin of defeat 19.7 16.25 +3.45
Turnover margin +8 -3 -11
Yards per play 5.43 5.51 +0.8
Yards per play allowed 5.50 5.77 -0.27
F+ Overall 83rd 89th -6
S&P+ Offense 52nd 84th -32

S&P+ Defense

63rd 95th -32

The table above displays several takeaways worth noting. First, the two point drop in average points per game scored is offset by the defense allowing two fewer points per game compared to last season.  This equal trade-off has resulted in the average margin of defeat dropping over three points per game. Prior to Saturday's 31 point loss to the Vols, the average margin of defeat in 2015 had been 11 points. UK finished the 2014 season with 19.7 points average margin per defeat.

As will be a theme for this post, the last two blow-out losses make this team appear worse - both superficially and statistically - than it probably actually is in reality.

Turnovers

Another factor this season has been turnover margin. Last season, UK forced a total of 23 turnovers while only losing 15 turnovers. UK is currently on pace to only create 13 turnovers this season. The mystery is why a back seven that returned every starter would go from forcing 15 interceptions in 12 games last season, to only forcing six interceptions in 2015. It's especially puzzling because only four of those interceptions came against weak competition in 2014. UK didn't pad its stats last year, at least in that regard.

I've charted 37 passes defended this season by UK's secondary (CFBstats.com charts 33). Generically, three passes defended, or pass break-ups, correlates to an interception. UK seems due a correction in this field going forward, especially considering the offenses they'll face. More on that below.

Yards Per Play

Yards per play has increased for the third consecutive year. UK is recruiting and developing skill players who have contributed  early. There are two talented sophomores in the backfield, while the receiving corps is led by four sophomores. The future is bright, but for now, the issue remains consistency which largely falls on the shoulders of a young offensive line led by under-performing veterans.

The defense is allowing more yards per play compared to 2014. Prior to October, the defense was allowing 5.36 yards per play. Mississippi State's 8.1 yards per play, and Tennessee's 7 yards per play have exploded what would have previously been good enough for the 9th best defense in the SEC. If one assumes Mississippi State and Tennessee are the best offenses UK will face this season - again, more on that below - one should expect to see a correction in the last third of the season in this area too.

Advanced Stats

Finally, the advanced metrics do not like UK at the moment. These can be volatile if they are viewed through the prism of a game-by-game basis. For example, UK fell roughly 20 spots after its near-loss to Eastern Kentucky. The following week, during UK's bye, the team rose 11 spots based on the performances of others.

Still, the advanced stats are the most damning evidence for UK struggling to get to six wins. The preseason rankings have been filtered out, strength of schedule is included, and garbage time stats aren't a factor.

Upcoming Competition

Now, let's compare UK's advanced stats rankings to the upcoming competition, because otherwise the changes between 2015 and 2014 reside in a  vacuum.

Comparing Upcoming S&P+ Offenses and Defenses
Teams SP+ Offense Ranking Difference vs UK's SP+ D SP+ Defense Ranking Difference vs UK SP+ O
Georgia 63 -32 30 -54
Vandy 118 +23 18 -66
Charlotte 127 +32 83 -2
Louisville 69 -26 17 -67

Projecting UK's Offense

This chart illustrates how out-manned UK's offense will be versus upcoming competition. There are some huge gaps here against Georgia, Vanderbilt, and Louisville. Even the game against Charlotte seems like an even match between UK's offense and their defense.

The offense will face some very good defenses; however, there is a bit of hope thanks to UK's proclivity for explosive plays even against previously-faced strong defenses. Against the 8th-ranked Florida defense, UK only scored 9 points, but against the 14th-ranked Missouri defense UK scored 21 points. Those are encouraging results if one gets encouraged by comparable measures. UK's offense has proven capable of getting into scoring position against elite defenses under certain conditions. For UK to replicate similar production against Missouri and Florida, the defense will have to play well for the sake of field possession, and to create more possessions to increase the likelihood of UK's offense creating explosive plays.

Projecting UK's Defense

Encouragingly, the offenses UK's defense will face are all worse than UK's last three opponents: Auburn (currently ranked 60th and UK allowed 30 points against the Tigers), Mississippi State (ranked 18th and UK allowed 42 points), and Tennessee (ranked 30th and UK allowed 52 points). Even South Carolina is currently ranked 61st, and UK's defense only allowed 22 points against the Gamecocks. Finally, Florida is currently ranked 37th, and UK's defense held that still-developing squad to 14 points.

UK's defense has already faced the best offenses it will face this season, and UK's early efforts against South Carolina and Florida are encouraging for the Georgia and Louisville games. The key difference between UK's defense today and in September is the increased amount of explosive plays the defense has started allowing, especially on third downs. One might argue the wear-and-tear of a season, as well as injuries, have impacted UK's defense, but those factors are probably a wash considering opponents are dealing with the same factors.

If UK makes a bowl game, it will be on the shoulders of a currently maligned defense. In many respects, the upcoming Kentucky-Vanderbilt game is eerily similar to the Kentucky-Missouri game. UK's offense played well against an elite defense, while UK's defense did its job against one of the country's worst offenses. UK played the game in the comfortable confines of CWS, but won despite not forcing any turnovers and Vandy's offense is the most turnover-prone in the SEC and hasn't gotten better as the season has progressed. Meanwhile, UK's defense appears due a correction in terms of turnovers forced and third down success.

TL;DR

UK has fallen backwards by several measures eight games into 2015 relative to 2014, but the last two games have biased the wider data set, and the upcoming games provide opportunities to bounce back. There are reasons to believe UK's defensive numbers will have a correction in the last month of the season given upcoming opponents' offenses. That would very likely translate to two more wins if UK's offense operates comparably to similarly-faced defenses in September. If UK's offense continues to take a step back, the path to 6 wins becomes more difficult.

Note: There won't be an "Upon Further Review Post" this week. I assume we are all okay with that.