Most think pieces this week analyzing Saturday’s festive Governor’s Cup will draw two independent conclusions: Lamar Jackson giving the game away to an inferior opponent, or Kentucky under Mark Stoops finally making a statement. National media will likely emphasize the former, while local media the latter. While both narratives contain elements of the truth, I believe both are red herrings. The true answer is Saturday’s result was a culmination.
A team that had one of the worst single game performances in all of college football against Florida in the second week has now won five of its last seven games, to include beating the 11th ranked team on the road. Quietly, UK has had their mid-season wins over bowl-bound South Carolina, Vanderbilt, and Mississippi State vindicated. Missouri even beat Arkansas in the final game of the year. This resume-building is called ending the season on a strong note.
Let’s pile-on with more praise: UK beat the Vegas spread seven times this season. The team’s physicality drew praise from Nick Saban, and his latest discipline-turn head coach Kirby Smart. On top of those factors, a quick perusal of the numbers reveals more.
2016 Postmortem: The Numbers (Abbreviated Version)
I take great joy in finally announcing after four seasons that a viable football program has its sorely-needed foundation. The team met everyone’s expectations this season (exceeded a lot of others), and performed well in the swing games identified in July. UK took advantage of an average at best SEC East. When all else fails, retain faith in the fundamentals, and not the performances of the first or the second game of a season. So, how’d we get here?
First and foremost, this team became a mentally tough outfit. As the wins piled up so did their self-confidence, and the team that folded earlier in the season when adversity struck was long gone. By the time adversity struck late in the season - down 13-0 early versus Austin Peay, surrendering endless scores to Tennessee, or Louisville easily scoring on its opening drive - the team kept their heads down and continued to plug away. They are fighters.
The same group of players wouldn’t have responded in the same way versus AP, Tennessee, or UofL if those instances occurred in September. Come October, a winning attitude was beginning to form. Consistent reports of healthy practice habits were further encouraging. A head coach and his assistants openly talking about how much they enjoy coaching this group was even more so. Here we are at the end of November and a winning attitude has taken hold, and full credit to the coaches and players. It didn’t happen over night even if the dividends are just now being reaped.
The Offense Was Oh-So Good; The Defense, Well, It’s Young...
Kentucky’s offense was the third best in the SEC in terms of yards per play in 2016. In five of the last six games of the season, the offense averaged more yards per play than its weekly opponent allowed over the course of the season. The only exception was versus Georgia when UK was slightly below Georgia’s season average. Scoring 31 points per game matches UK’s 2010 season featuring Mike Hartline and some guy named Randall Cobb.
The offense was trending up for some time, the defense, sadly, was not. Instead, the defense, which lost 60% of its tackling production last season, was more like Homer Simpson’s boxing style:
It would admirably take the other team’s punches, often allowing yards against good offenses, but didn’t quit even if execution failed. Not quitting allowed UK to take advantage of those few opportunities that several one-score games hinged upon. Against the Cardinals, a team prone to turnovers, capitalizing on mistakes proved decisive, UK’s defense effectively ended three drives Saturday (four if you count the goal-line stand) which is about all it needs to do when the offense is operating efficiently.
Ultimately, a young defense regressed this year to the tune of allowing 31 points per game and 6.1 yards per play (29 points per play and 5.5 yards per play in 2015), but was aided by a ball control offense that suffocated the clock before scoring points. Next season, with 17 players returning in the defense’s two-deep, more will be expected.
This season was a massive step forward, and feels all the more rewarding given the way it started. This team earned its wins, and it was a season-long journey culminating in a deserved win against Louisville.
I will do season-ending analysis of position groupings in the lead-up to the bowl game (in addition to previewing the opponent). If I have time this week, I’d also like to write a schematically-themed analysis of how UK attacked UofL’s defense.
All in good time. For now, if you’re anything like me, you’re still basking in the glow of a fall well spent on the couch in front of the television.