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Previewing The Kentucky-Georgia Tech Match-Up

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What do the numbers say about UK's upcoming bowl match-up? Well, for one, they show how eerily similar these two teams are.

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Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

It was announced Sunday UK's opponent would be the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the TaxSlayer Bowl taking place on December 31st at 11AM. I, like a lot of people, was immediately curious how UK would match-up with an opponent UK never faces. Statistics are useful for starting conversations, so diving into the numbers seemed like a natural thing to do.

You'll see below that the numbers slightly favor Georgia Tech. Both offenses rank highly, but Georgia Tech's defense is better than Kentucky's. Yet, when you look deeper into the numbers, it seems pretty clear that UK will be able to move the ball against the Yellow Jacket defense based on comparative competition. The GT blog, at least, is not a fan of the defense, and it's not due to lack of talent.

In fact, given the success both these teams have running the ball, and their respective rush defenses, I expect this game to last two and a half hours.  There will be more analysis in the month ahead, but for now, let's talk broadly about the numbers.

10,000 Foot Overview

Teams FPI F+ FEI S&P+ S&P+ Defense S&P+ Offense
Kentucky (7-5) 62nd 67th 74th 59th 87th 47th
Georgia Tech (8-4) 48th 47th 46th 47th 61st 44th

Every "advanced" stat system ranks Georgia Tech higher than Kentucky, and it's largely because Georgia Tech's defense is seen as perfectly average while Kentucky's is below average. Notice S&P+ thinks both team's offenses are roughly equal. UK's offense is a hybrid pro-style scheme that aspires for run-pass balance, and as we all know, Georgia Tech runs Paul Johnson's option offense.

Of course, Mark Stoops and DJ Eliot have experience facing GT's option attack while at Florida State. The 'Cats will have a few weeks to prepare, and they must play disciplined defense and follow their assignments (I'm looking at you hyperactive Jordan Jones). The defensive linemen will have to practice overcoming cut-blocks from interior offensive linemen. It will not be a fun few weeks of preparation for them, I imagine.

These numbers give Georgia Tech the edge, but let's take a closer look.

5,000 Foot Overview

Now, let's take a closer look at the each team's ability to run and pass the ball, and how that matches up against one another's defense.

Teams S&P+ Rushing S&P+ Rush Defense S&P+ Passing S&P+ Pass Defense
Kentucky 10th 107th 61st 80th
Georgia Tech 14th 112th 10th 84th

Both teams are nearly identical. They each have elite rushing offenses, and pretty awful rush defenses. This game may as well just feature a running clock from the outset. I'm not sure why GT has such a high passing ranking, but I assume that has something to do with finding success in play-action. I noticed from CFBStats.com that no receiver on the roster averages more than 40 yards receiving per game.

I also took a glance at each team's special teams. Kentucky's special teams are ranked 46th in FEI and 67th in S&P+ while Georgia Tech's is ranked 28th by both. Georgia Tech's high rating is due to their strong kickoff coverage, and a great field goal kicker. The similarities between the two teams continues.

Which Team Closed The Season The Strongest?

I've previously written bowl season is really exhibition season. Varying teams come into the game with varying motivations. The game is played on a neutral field, usually weeks after the regular season. Despite those factors, I was curious how each team closed their season. I used S&P+ which tracked their percentile performance relative to every team that given week.

Teams 26-Nov 19-Nov 12-Nov 5-Nov
Kentucky 53% 18% 11% 15%
Georgia Tech 41% 25% 45% 15%

Kentucky had the single best performance in November against UofL, according to these numbers; however, GT had the better month overall. Offensively, UK closed off the season with percentile performances of 95% (UofL), 66% (AP), 78% (UT), and 41% (UGA). Georgia Tech's offense also had high numbers. It finished the season 91% (Georgia), 50% (Virginia), 68% (Virginia Tech), and 77% (UNC).

For those curious, UK's defense was (same order of opponents): 46%, 52%, 13%, and 20%. GT's defense was 19%, 56%, 74%, and 19%.

Interesting Individual Match-Ups

We've already discussed GT's excellent place kicker above. It's a close game, he will be dangerous weapon just as Austin MacGinnis is for UK. Who else on the Yellow Jacket's should UK fans be on the look-out for?

First, is freshman running back Dedrick Mills who has had a great season. Senior quarterback Justin Thomas has been a starter for several years now, if memory serves, and he's third on the team in terms of rushing.

I wasn't able to find out much about GT's offensive line with early research, but that will be something I focus on in the week's ahead. They have the advantage over UK's front seven, but at which areas will be important.

On the defensive side, a few players also stand-out. First is senior defensive lineman Patrick Gamble. The defensive tackle is the Yellow Jacket's most disruptive lineman. This season he 5.5 sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss. I'm not familiar with GT's defensive scheme, so I'm unsure where he primarily aligns. With his height, I imagine he plays more 3-6 tech, and towards the opposing quarterback's blind-side, so he'll spend most of the day going against UK's left offensive tackle which will be Cole Mosier and Landon Young.

Also catching my eye are GT's defensive backs, primarily safety Corey Griffin who is 23rd in the ACC in tackles, and has two interceptions. GT also has a cornerback named Lance Austin who has three inteceptions, and leads the ACC in 12 passes broken up. He was named the ACC Defensive Back of the Week the last two weeks of the season. He will probably draw Jeff Badet or Dorian Baker duties.

Option Offense Concerns

There's some deserved hand-wringing about GT's option offense by all of their opponents; however, when a team has time to prepare for it, the offense doesn't perform as well in bowl games. Paul Johnson arrived at GT in 2008, and this is how his teams performed in terms of average yards per play in the regular season versus the bowl game.

Year Avg. Yard/Play Regular Season Avg. Yard/Play Bowl Game
2008 6.0 4.8
2009 6.0 3.0
2010 5.8 4.5
2011 6.7 6.3
2012 6.1 5.0
2013 6.1 4.5
2014 6.7 7.1

When teams get a few weeks, and not a few days to prepare, teams tend to blunt the damage from GT's option attack (Note: GT did not make a bowl last season). Only once has GT had more yards per play in their bowl game than they did in the regular season. In some cases, it fell by a yard or more.

Too Early Conclusions

It's eerie how similar these two teams are. It seems like an evenly matched game.

The scoring in this game will probably be artificially lowered as both offenses will pick-up big chunks of yards running the ball. This will consume clock and limit overall possessions. Turnovers tend to prove decisive in low-possession games, which puts UK at a disadvantage as Georgia Tech is +3 on the season, and UK is -6. The 'Cats must display a newfound ability to take care of the ball against the Yellow Jackets or they may not possess the ball for 5-9 minute stretches of the game.

In terms of comparables, both teams have played Georgia. GT beat the Bulldogs 28-27 over Thanksgiving while UK, of course, lost 27-24 a few weeks earlier. Both UK and GT's offenses racked up the yardage against Kirby Smart's defense, and both GT and UK's defenses allowed roughly the same amount of points and yards to a below average Bulldog offense.

Other comps: Tennessee's defense is ranked 57th in S&P+ (recall GT is ranked 61st), and UK amassed 36 points and all the yards in that game. Mississippi State's offense is ranked 41st (GT is ranked 46th), and UK allowed 38 points in that game.

This seems like it will come down to a one-score game with a score somewhere in the 25-35 point range. I imagine both teams combine for less than 20 possessions. The defense that forces the key turnover, and special teams play will prove the difference as these offenses are evenly matched and likely cancel each other out.