Last May, I went back and compared the Kentucky Wildcats' ranking in various advanced statistics rankings to see which was the best predictor of UK's 2014 season. The thought being, we'll key-in on the best predictive model from last year to project this year. It projected UK to finish 6-6 in 2015.
Three games into the 2015 season, I wanted to revisit specifically how Pythagorean expectation viewed the season thus far. The sample size is small, but the Pythagorean expectation currently projects UK's win total to be 1.6. Essentially, the model thinks UK is borderline 1-2 at this point in the season.
This makes a certain amount of sense. In all three of UK's games this season, the final score was determined by a touchdown difference or less. Over time, teams tend to win as many one-score games as they lose. The winning programs over time tend to avoid close games as a feature. In terms of aggregate points, UK has scored 75 total points to allowing 69 total points.
How Has UK Survived Then?
There are at least two reasons UK has been able to keep its head above water so far. The first is UK continues to win the turnover battle, and is +2 on the season. Again, it's early, but UK is currently averaging 1.3 interceptions per game which outstrips last season's average of 1.25 interceptions per game. UK also forced 0.7 fumbles per game in 2014, which equals this year's mark. On average, a turnover is worth 5 points when it comes to field position loss by the offense, and field position gain for the defense's offensive counterparts. In that respect, UK's offense has benefited greatly from having their defensive teammates force turnovers.
Overall, UK has been even more ball-hawking than last season. This is a bit surprising since turnover margin tends to be random, and often times varies from year-to-year. For example, recall against South Carolina, UK recovered three of its own fumbles (Boom Williams recovered two of his own). If UK had lost any of those fumbles the final result could have been different. Thus far, the Chaos Gods have smiled on the Wildcats. Thus far.
Secondly, in 9 trips to the red zone, UK has scored 100% of the time with five touchdowns and four field goals, but evidence suggests this is a misleading stat. Bill Connelly will tell you that red zone efficiency isn't as important as "finishing drives" which means how many points you score after you cross your opponents 40-yard line. UK was very good at finishing drives, but that was prior to the Florida Gators game. Against them, UK had two different first-and-goal opportunities, but they could only manage on field goals which was one of the deciding factors in the loss.
Over time, field goals "are basically failures", and teams that only average 3 points per trip inside their opponents 40-yard line typically only win a third of their games. Forcing field goals, thereby preventing touchdowns, in the red zone is why UK was able to beat South Carolina two weeks ago. This is why "bend-but-don't-break" defenses can yield results.
That's not to say UK doesn't have a burgeoning star in kicker Austin MacGinnis. UK has played three close games this season, and it's important to have a good kicker in close games. He may well be the MVP at this point of the season. Nonetheless, UK has to score touchdowns when they get the ball on their opponents side of the field. A good kicker optimizes his worth in close games when the offense has also done it's job. The team that has a kicker that pushes a team's overall score to 31 points is going to win more games than the team who has the kicker who pushes the total score to 13 points in other words.
You can have an All-SEC kicker, which UK does, but once the Chaos Gods cease to favor UK, the Wildcats will be in dire need of touchdowns. In light of the numbers, perhaps UK should feel fortunate to be sporting a 2-1 record.