With the conclusion of spring practice the college football calendar hits its annual lull. There will be the occasional spikes in recruiting news, but from now until SEC Media Days, any news is usually bad news. Into this void steps preseason prognostications.
As in the previous three years, let’s dive head-first into what S&P+ and ESPN have to say about Kentucky this year. The systems think more highly of Kentucky this preseason than at any point before. Finally, as always, we’ll pay a visit to our old friend Pythagoras.
Bill Connelly’s 2017 preseason rankings place the Wildcats at 41st on the heels of their first bowl game under Stoops. This is their highest S&P+ preseason ranking since 2015 when that team ranked 52nd largely due to a surprising five win finish in the season before. Unfortunately, that 2015 team would go on to finish 95th in the final rankings after a repeat five win season. It was regression by stasis.
Over the last few years, S&P+ preseason figures have not been a great predictor of UK’s season record (different story during the season), so temper that feeling of excitement for now. Perhaps more interesting are other factors. Kentucky’s returning production is 44th which is good for fourth among its opponents this year (note Louisville is seventh). Overcoming a weighted five year average of 86th further demonstrates the strong headwinds Stoops and his staff have faced returning the program to respectability.
ESPN’s FPI is once again the most generous to Kentucky, and ranks the ‘Cats at 34th with an approximated 7-5 record despite facing what FPI considers the seventh harder schedule in the country. Further confirmation UK could be a better team next season, but still finish with an identical or worse record due to a resurgent SEC East, a road trip to Southern Miss, and Louisville’s expected top 10-15 ranking.
While FPI’s methodology is still frustratingly opaque, it has been a better predictor of UK’s season than S&P+. In 2014, FPI predicted 54th and UK finished 60th. In 2016, FPI predicted 56th and UK finished 62nd. Like S&P+, the system whiffed on 2015 albeit with a lower margin.
Based on FPI precedent, the ‘Cats will probably finish around 40th in FPI’s final preseason rankings. To put that in perspective from last season, Georgia finished the season 43rd with a record of 7-5.
Kentucky outperformed last year’s Pythagorean projection which originally leaned towards another five win season demonstrating these models are tools and not prophecy. UK obviously punched above its weight in the Louisville game - rivalries can produce weird outcomes - but the offensive resurgence was the black swan event. Few expected UK could produce after the Florida game with a second string quarterback, a second string freshman running back, and an anonymous offensive line. Nevertheless, the team persisted.
This year, the projection says UK performed slightly better than it should have last season, and so is due a small regression. Again, this regression is most likely due to the win over Louisville, when the ‘Cats - the better team that day to be clear - overcame a 28 point Vegas point spread. If the ‘Cats had beaten Georgia Tech in the bowl game, or really had just had won more games by more than a touchdown, it would have gone a long way towards cementing their seven win status. The lack of clear victories, along with a few multiple touchdown losses, casts the 7-5 record in some defensible doubt.
I would have liked to apply this tweak to the projection, but will maybe get to it later this summer (at the same time, a 12 game sample size may not change the data enough compared to the NFL 16 game schedule). Thoughts to ponder while doing yard work this summer.
FPI and S&P+ both like Kentucky more than ever before this preseason. FPI has been closer at being right about Kentucky the last three years than S&P+. Pythagorean projection thinks UK takes a small step back.
Overall, these models suggest a six or seven win season is the most likely outcome. It’s too much to expect another black swan event this season (e.g. Stephen Johnson ascending to All-SEC, or an unknown defensive tackle pulling a Benny Snell and changing the game plans of opposing teams), but that kind of luck would probably propel Kentucky into SEC East champion discussions.
There’s some solace in that at least. In the past, a streak of good luck just meant making the post-season, and not competing for the SEC East.