Following the 42-7 loss to Florida, Mark Stoops decided to make a change. He would be calling the defense going forward instead of D.J. Eliot, following the lead of Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason last season.
The following week, Kentucky would yield 42 points to New Mexico State, a team only averaging 23 points per game in 2016. It was an inauspicious start.
The following games were better results. Kentucky only surrendered 23 points and 540 yards combined against South Carolina and Vanderbilt. The defense was also impressive against Missouri, only allowing seven points and 300 total yards until late in the fourth quarter when the Tigers scored 14 points on the shoulders of successive special teams and one big offensive play.
Whether that impresses or not is rooted in perspective. On one hand, the defense did its job and shut down Kentucky’s SEC East peers. On the other, South Carolina’s offense is ranked 114th, Vandy’s 116th, and Missouri’s 42nd in S&P+. The true tests for the defense would come against better offenses.
And so far, the defense has flunked three of those tests. Mississippi State’s offense is ranked 46th in S&P+. The Bulldogs have averaged 5.71 yards per play this season, good for sixth in the SEC, and against Kentucky they did better and averaged 6.01 yards per play. They may have only finished with 389 total yards, but they also only ran 60 plays thanks to UK’s ball control offense.
Georgia served as another litmus test. The other Bulldogs are averaging a woeful 5.22 yards per play this season. Their offensive line has been terrible, the quarterback is a true freshman, and they have no deep threats. The offense belongs to running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, but they aren’t enough to make the offense’s potential any higher than average. Against Kentucky, the ‘Dawgs averaged 6.3 yards per play, and were a model of efficiency.
Then we have Saturday’s loss to Tennessee. The Volunteers have had their own offensive woes this season thanks to injuries and team turmoil, and yet they did whatever they wanted to Kentucky’s defense. Remarkably, the Vols only faced third down five times. If Georgia was efficient against Kentucky, then Tennessee was an automated assembly line.
Mark Stoops’ Best?
Overall, UK’s defense is allowing 6.14 yards per play on average which is 13th in the SEC. While the unit is ranked 67th in S&P+ which adjusts for competition and garbage time stats, this defense has only had efficiency ratings higher than the 50% percentile four times in 10 games.
The defense is rarely in the top 50% of performances on a weekly basis, and it’s been lower than the bottom 20% on five other occasions (Florida, New Mexico State, Mississippi State, Georgia, and Tennessee). Most Saturdays, the defense is either slightly above average or flat mediocre, and it’s play is largely dependent on the offense it faces.
For historical perspective, the defense allowed 5.29 yards per play in 2013, 5.43 in 2014, and 5.47 in 2015. Opponents are scoring 32 points per game against Kentucky which is higher than the 31 points per game allowed in 2013 and 2014.
The “advanced” stats like this year’s defense more than the raw numbers. S&P+ ranked the defense 98th in 2013, 63rd in 2014, and 79th in 2015. The boost in raw numbers is largely seen across the SEC thanks in no small part to the proliferation of spread offenses opening up the field. Yet, it remains troubling that offenses which have struggled this season, like Georgia and Tennessee, could so savagely defeat UK’s defense. UK couldn’t even hold them to their season averages.
Conclusion And Outlook
The defense that seemed improved in September and October began sliding back about a month ago, with the one blip of encouragement coming against Missouri. It’s a far cry from the worst defense in history, but it’s pretty clear that UK’s defense preys on the weak.
At the end of the day, the defensive brain trust remained the same which meant the same game-planning. Calling the defense is just crossing the finish line. The preparation remains the piece of the iceberg under the water’s surface.
A scary thought is wondering where this defense would rank without its efficient ball control offense. UK’s offense chews up clock and grinds down defenses. It also keeps the ball out of the opponent’s hands, which was a major factor in UK’s three point win over Mississippi State. Minimizing opponent’s possessions has been UK’s secret sauce.
The defense is very young, and there are many reasons to think its best games are in the seasons to come if the coaches are able to nurture talent and build depth. As of 2016, it’s still very much a work in progress.