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Building A Viable Football Program - Series Finale

Bringing a three year series that covered UK football on a wider season-to-season angle to its conclusion.

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

The third regular season of the Mark Stoops' reclamation project has ended in a disappointing manner. Last Saturday's loss to UofL was in several ways a microcosm of the last two regular seasons - a strong start is undermined by a late collapse; however, the purpose of this series is to scrutinize the progress on a season-to-season basis and not through a game-by-game or tweet-by-tweet basis. As a refresher, you can read Part One and Part Two from December 2013, and Part Three and Part Four from last December to read the zeitgeist of the time.

Stasis As Regression

For my money, this season will be characterized as a codependent, and dysfunctional relationship between a bend-don't-break defense and a boom-or-bust offense. Both sides brought out the worst of the other: the offense was typically burdened with a long field, and the defense typically had their backs against a wall trying to defend a short field. It complicates the understanding of either side's strengths or weaknesses considering they both often took the field with inherit disadvantage.

That's a broad summary, but let's dive into the same numbers we've used the last two years and see what changes have taken place. The offense took a step back this season in most variables after improving over the last two seasons, while the defense took a slight step forward in areas (e.g. points allowed) while regressing in other areas [Table has been updated to reflect the advanced metrics].

2013 2014 2015
Points per game 20.5 29.2 24.7
Points allowed 31.2 31.3 27.4
Yards per game 341 384 372
Yards allowed 427 407 394
Yards per play 5.29 5.43 5.47
Per play allowed 6.3 5.50 5.55
Turnovers lost 15 15 22
Turnovers forced 15 23 20
Sacks allowed 37 36 30
Sacks forced 23 27 17
F+ Ranking 97th 83rd 88th
S&P+ Ranking 93rd 63rd 95th
FEI Ranking 95th 76th 77th
S&P+ Offense Ranking 81st 52nd 104th
S&P+ Defense Ranking 98th 63rd 79th


In the previous installments, I've compared UK's rebuild to other P5 programs that underwent recent coaching changes. Below is a comparison between their third seasons and Kentucky's. For the full break down of their first, second, and other seasons click on the links to early installments above [Note: the numbers below include bowl games for every team besides Kentucky and Auburn].

Year 3 Record Rivals' Ranking Avg. margin in losses Losses by 14 or less # of scholarship seniors
Kentucky (2015) 5-7 21 (3.0) 15.2 4 17
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) 6-6 11 (3.47) 11.8 5 18

The above chart indicates Kentucky is, at this time and by one recruiting service, recruiting worse than the other programs, and the average margin in losses also remains high. At the same time, the losses by 14 points or less has risen indicating increasing competitive losses all while having a young roster as the last of Joker's recruits exit the program. Here's what I said after looking at the Year 2 Table last season:

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.

UK's average margin in losses decreased by 4.5 points which is not the 6.0 point decrease I wanted to see this time last season. The cause of this is largely on an offense scoring five fewer points per game.

The Elephant In The Room

A scapegoat for this season's results will naturally be the coaches. They are professionals who consistently show restraint when non-professionals like myself criticize them (they are more patient than I'd be if a stranger showed up to my office and told me how to do my job), and this off-season looks set-up for hand-wringing from the influential and non-influential alike.

The staff certainly deserves some criticism - primarily in the areas of player development at two or three key positions - but I don't see any easy solutions. The numbers in the tables above show some areas of improvement and also several areas of decline. The program is clearly healthier than two years ago, but it's harder to discern overall progress from last season. The results are mixed. The numbers clearly show a decline in places, but UK was far closer to making a bowl game this season than last season despite identical records.

UK may decide to fire an assistant in the off-season, but there's been no evidence to date this will happen [Monday Update: several reports suggest staff turnover will happen soon]. It's important to point out that hiring new coaches is almost always a gamble (David at TSK recently said there's only been three no-brain hires this century: Calipari to Kentucky, Nick Saban to Alabama, and Urban Meyer to Ohio State). Don't expect a coaching change, assistant or head coach, to make things automatically better. Sometimes it pays off, and sometimes it doesn't. Who they have as their personnel makes a huge difference.

Which leads me to...

The Other Elephant In The Room

What the coaches won't say publicly is UK still doesn't field a roster wholly comprised of SEC quality athletes that are also experienced. There's no lobbying group for frank talk about the players which naturally leads to coaches being the magnets for criticism. For example, defensive players missing tackles against Lamar Jackson one-on-one in space has very little to do with coaching acumen and more to do with the abilities of available personnel.

Instead, put your faith in recruiting. There are very few great coaches - head coach or assistant - in sports. What typically makes coaches look like geniuses are the players they have at their disposal. Shannon Dawson is catching a lot of heat these days, but recall he oversaw an offense featuring Kevin White last season that scored 34 points per game last season. Imagine if Coach K or Calipari were only signing players ranked 75th and higher in their classes, and then think how many seasons they'd be on the bubble. That doesn't mean they stopped being good coaches.

Imagine if Coach K or Calipari were only signing players ranked 75th and higher in their classes, and then think how many seasons they'd be on the bubble. That doesn't mean they stopped being good coaches.

Recruiting better athletes is the major aspect of rebuilding, but getting the better athletes experienced is also needed.

Speaking of Experience...

In the month of November, UK's offensive two-deep featured 16 underclassmen. Meanwhile, the defensive two-deep featured 11 underclassmen. Out of 44 players in the two-deep on both sides of the ball, 63% were underclassmen. A cursory search around the SEC East finds no team with greater than 46% of underclassmen in the two-deep.

The prescription for improved play is time, but coaches have to walk the tightrope between winning now and building for the future. Patience is a virtue that's often difficult to obtain given the ever-lower bar for coach firings (i.e. Mark Richt) and fan discontent (i.e. BBN, two years removed from the dark ages, not satisfied with an almost bowl eligible team). Gary Pinkel at Missouri and Dan Mullen at Mississippi State never had darling recruiting rankings, but they had rosters littered with fifth and fourth year seniors along their two-deeps. They built over time.

I wish Mark Stoops was able to redshirt freshmen like Derrick Baity, Jordan Jones, Chris Westry, CJ Conrad, George Asafo-Adjei, and Joshua Allen, but they were forced into duty because the upperclassmen weren't up to the task (but also some bad injury luck). To build a solid program these freshmen cannot return the disfavor to the underclassmen when they themselves become upperclassmen. That's how a program builds new stories upon its foundation.

Wrapping It Up

UK's offense took a moderate-size step backward this season, and it did so despite taking a moderate step forward last season with most of the same players. The defense's improvement was marginal in points allowed, but still gave up a lot of yards. Both the offense and the defense were ranked in the triple digits in terms of starting field position which would have made any improvement very hard.

UK is also behind the benchmarks in Year 3. A bowl game would have eased the pain of the season by a large amount, and UK came close - to varying degrees - between Florida, Auburn, and Vanderbilt.

Where we go from here is anyone's guess. I'll have specific thoughts on the 2016 season coming soon.