With this being the last game of the season, and my game preview duties mostly taking place over at Team Speed Kills this season, I thought I'd kick it old school and do a "statsy" game preview to supplement the more formal preview coming later this week. For the second year in a row, Kentucky needs to beat Louisville to advance to the postseason. Let's examine the advanced metrics for UofL's strengths and weaknesses relative to Kentucky strengths and weaknesses.
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+
Kentucky's Defense vs. Louisville's Offense
A topic near and dear to my heart is the play of UK's defense in the last month. They played pretty well against Georgia considering how the offense and special teams failed them (which has been a theme this season - see my comment on 11 Nov at 11:14AM ), and they've pitched a shutout in the last two games, save a Vandy trick play and a late fourth quarter Charlotte touchdown. That's certainly not to say they are a "good" defense, but simply that they've taken care of business after a tough stretch in October, and are back within spitting distance of being right in the middle of all 128 FBS defenses.
|UK Defense||UofL Offense|
If there was to be a unifying theme for UK's defense this year it would be a team outmatched everywhere except being very good at limiting explosive plays (18th in the country), and being above average at allowing teams to finish drives (40th). Almost the perfect bend-don't-break defense. If only it had last year's Havoc Rate it would have had a shot at being above average.
UofL has a distinct edge in the overall ranking, rushing, and passing efficiency. UofL seems set to get their yards on Saturday; however, UK looks to have its own advantage on its side of the field. UofL has only scored touchdowns on 55% of its trips to the red zone this season, and field goals are essentially meaningless over the span of most games against most teams.
According to the advanced metrics, this side of the ball will be determined by UK's ability to stop UofL once they get into scoring position (UK's 40-yard line). The numbers suggest UofL won't be able to dependably rely on explosive plays against UK, thereby forcing the Cards to chain together long drives. UK will hope this increases the opportunity to create turnovers, or for UofL's offense to sputter out due to a high penalty rate or lack of execution.
To put UofL's overall offensive ranking of 57th into perspective: Florida is ranked 56th (UK held them to 14 points), Georgia is 69th (UK allowed 27 points), and Auburn is 54th (UK allowed 30 points). UofL's offense has averaged 28 points this season, and UK's defense has held four of eight SEC teams at or below their regular season scoring average, but that figure could easily be six out of eight SEC teams (Vanderbilt's 21 points is inflated due to their defensive play-making, and Auburn scored 30 points against UK but have averaged 28.5 points per game this season).
In short, it's reasonable to suspect UK holds Louisville close to their season average of 28 points per game based on historical precedent.
Kentucky's Offense vs. Louisville's Defense
This side of the ball will be a very tough matchup for UK's offense. One likes seeing UK's Top 30 rush ranking, but UofL's Top 15 rush defense looks to largely neutralize UK's greatest strength. UK would like to establish the running game on Saturday for several different reasons, one of which is enabling Drew Barker.
We all know how well Stanley Williams has played this season. In nine games he has 818 yards, but Jojo Kemp has quietly had a great month. In the Georgia and Vandy games he averaged 5.1 yards per carry, and on the season has averaged 5.8 yards per carry for 541 yards on the season. He's playing the back-half of his junior season just as one would hope the veteran would.
UK's pass ranking is 89th, and BBN partisans may be tempted to find the silver-lining and say that ranking is subject to change with a new quarterback under center. Perhaps that's true, but that line of thinking would hold more water for me if the receivers weren't dropping balls, and the offensive line didn't have a tendency to leak like a sieve for the last quarterback. It would take a transcendent quarterback performance to overcome those challenges.
The area where UK's offense would appear to to have a distinct advantage is finishing drives once the 'Cats get the ball beyond UofL's 40-yard line. For whatever reason, the Cardinals are one of the worst teams in the country defensively once their opponents get to that point of the field. UK can exploit this due to inconsistent tackling and coverage breakdowns in the Cards' secondary this season. The offense has to get there first, and good field position from special teams and defensive play would go a long way to doing that. "A total team effort," as Mark Stoops likes to say.
For perspective, UofL's defensive ranking of 23rd is closest to Tennessee's ranking of 18th (UK's offense scored 14 points), Vanderbilt's ranking of 12th (UK scored 17 points), and Missouri's ranking of 10th (UK scored 21 points). UofL's defense has held its ACC opponents - and Auburn - to below their season scoring average only three times this year, but in fairness, that figure is close to being on five occasions.
Based on those performances, it would seem reasonable for UK to score around, but likely a bit bit below, the 25 points per game the 'Cats have averaged this season. If UK's offense punches above its weight, it must start with having good field position.
SoS and Mojo
Let's get this out of the way first and foremost: UK's best win this season is against a 5-win Missouri team. UK has no signature win, and no room to talk bad about another team's strength of schedule.
UofL's best win, subjectively, is thumping a 7-4 NC State team on the road, but all seven of NC State's wins this season have come against non-winning FBS programs and their FCS opponent. The 8-3 Pittsburgh team that just beat UofL is a mediocre 3-3 against winning FBS programs. UofL's best win, and it's recent loss, have both come against teams that don't have strong resumes themselves.
Momentum is another area worth exploring. Looking at UK's percentile performance shows a team that's played increasingly better the last two weeks. A 9% performance against Georgia was rock bottom, but the 51% against Vanderbilt and the 90% performance against Charlotte make for a nice rebound. The team still appears focused despite the failings of October which is a credit to themselves and the coaching staff.
UofL on the other hand has seen a drop in its performances. Three weeks ago against Syracuse, UofL had a percentile performance of 94%, but that dropped the next week to 70% against a slightly better Virginia team. Last Saturday against Pittsburgh, UofL operated at 38%.
One would expect UK's performance to rise as it faces increasingly easier competition, while it's natural for UofL's performance to dip while it faces increasingly tougher competition. The variance is what is surprising, and assuming the model is accurate, may suggest UK has some winds in its sails at a critical moment. And if you're UK, you probably don't mind playing UofL coming off a two-game slide.
The Governor's Cup has had fairly lopsided scores of late, but the scores have been much closer when the game is played in Lexington. In the last ten years, the median scoring margin has been seven points. Only once, the third game of Mark Stoops tenure in 2013, has the final score been determined by more than a touchdown and that UofL team would finish 12-1.
UofL looks to be a rightful favorite for a variety of reasons, but the opening Vegas line appears accurate based on these metrics. If UK can get the ball into scoring position, they'll likely walk away with points. If UK's defense can force UofL's offense to beat them by chaining together long drives then they'll probably win their share of battles.
In short, UK wins or loses this game based on how both sides of the ball play when in scoring position.
How's that for revelatory?