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Debunking one Florida writer’s “statistical breakdown” of “why Florida won’t get trapped by Kentucky”

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Not saying it’s not a “statistical breakdown”, just saying the stats are selective.

NCAA Football: Kentucky at Louisville
Kentucky Wildcats kicker Austin McGinnis (99) reacts along side wide receiver Kynan Smith (42) after scoring the game winning field goal against the Louisville Cardinals during the second quarter at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium. Kentucky defeated Louisville 41-38.
Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

Who’s ready for Saturday? I’m not sure if you heard, but the line for the Kentucky-Florida showdown has moved to a mere 1.5-point margin in favor of the Gators...and don’t tell anyone this, but I think Florida fans are starting to get a little worried.

Enter SEC Country’s Will Miles to attempt to calm the nerves of the Gator Nation some ahead of Saturday night’s match-up with a comfort post titled Statistical breakdown of why the Florida Gators won’t get trapped by Kentucky.

In my personal opinion, I thought Mr. Miles was a bit selective in much of the statistics provided in his post. So I have done my best to dispute some of the numbers, challenge some of the logic, and outline a few other points that may have slipped through the cracks.

You’ll find pieces of Miles’ article in bold, followed by my commentary below.

But for 2016, the takeaway is Florida was somewhere between 8-15 points better than Kentucky. The question then is whether the changes and growth Kentucky has made from last year to this outpaces the Gators by that amount?

What about the fact that Florida lost seven defensive starters to the NFL? And an eighth (Marcel Harris) to injury? Or that Florida has nine players suspended, including their leading receiver and leading rusher from a season ago? Another Florida player that started six games in 2016, linebacker Kylan Johnson, is not expected to make the trip to Lexington. Veteran corner Duke Dawson was listed as “highly questionable” by McElwain earlier in the week.

Kentucky has also had a number of players who either left early, graduated, transferred, or lost to injury, but not nearly as many as Florida.

He (Stephen Johnson) has improved in the first three games this season, posting a QB rating of 140.9 in 67 attempts. That ranks 58th in the country. However, that is boosted by his performance against Eastern Kentucky and drops to 126.6 if only including FBS opponents, which is 2016 Austin Appleby territory.

Interestingly, the 59th-ranked QB on that list: Florida’s Feleipe Franks. Historically QBs play significantly worse on the road. And since Franks is making his first start on the road as a starter, he’s likely going to be asked to manage the game and avoid turnovers that will give Kentucky cheap points.

According to ESPN, Stephen Johnson ranks 10th in the nation in 2017 in terms of total quarterback rating, posting an 84.2. Feleipe Franks is not on the list of 50.

Kentucky’s offensive performance in 2017 compared to 2016. (Will Miles/SEC Country)

Admittedly this is a small sample size for 2017. But it’s not as if Kentucky has been playing juggernaut defenses. Southern Mississippi had the 83rd-ranked defense in 2016 and South Carolina ranked 43rd.

According to ESPN, Southern Miss had the 18th-ranked defense in terms of yards allowed per game in 2016 and South Carolina had the the 62nd-ranked defense in the same category in 2016. But I don’t think any of that is going to matter come Saturday.

On the Florida side, it’s no secret the Gators offense has struggled. But the Gators aren’t any worse than Kentucky, ranking 111th in offensive yards and 85th in points per game.

Again, I have no idea where these stats are coming from. Florida has 572 total offensive yards in 2017, ranking them 127th of 130 teams in the country. In the same category, Kentucky is ranked 87th with 1,043 total yards, per ESPN. The caveat to that statistic is that Florida has only played two games this season, while Kentucky and most other teams across the country have played three. When you break it down to total yards per game, Kentucky ranks 102nd in the country with 348, while Florida ranks 122nd with 286, per ESPN. In points per game for 2017, Kentucky ranks 94th, averaging 24.7, while Florida is 108th with an average of 21.5.

I know Florida has played some tougher opponents, but watch Florida’s game against Tennessee and then Kentucky’s game against South Carolina from last weekend and tell me which offense you think is better.

I’ve also written about looking at the difference between recruiting rankings and finish in the AP poll as a measure of a coach’s acumen. Stoops has not finished in the AP poll in his time at Kentucky so instead I used ESPN’s final FPI ranking and efficiency rankings to get an idea of how Kentucky fared compared to Stoop’s recruiting.

Mark Stoops recruiting rankings versus on-field performance. (Will Miles/SEC Country)

That’s not all that impressive. Stoops has been bringing in top-30 classes for five straight years and the team has not played like it. Using this metric, McElwain grades out slightly worse than comparing to AP poll finish (averages of 25.5 for FPI and 26 for efficiency vs. 19.5 AP), but it’s still way closer to his recruiting ranking (16.5) than Stoops.

Using this logic to measure coaching performance is bogus. First, just look at the numbers posted here under “247Sports Recruiting Ranking”, where Kentucky ranks 34, 22, 38, 34, and 30 in the past five years. That would appear to be just two top-30 recruiting classes, right?

The whole comparison of recruiting rankings to final ESPN FPI or ESPN Efficiency rankings in the same year seems to me a ridiculous formula for evaluating a coach. After all, the author of this article would rather compare McElwain’s average recruiting ranking (16.5) to the 19.5 average final AP ranking of the Gators over the last two years.

What he does not take into account is McElwain’s 2017 247Sports recruiting ranking (11th) compared to Florida’s current FPI ranking (24th), or the Gators’ current ESPN Efficiency Rating: 56th. There is a lot of nitpicking going on here. If you add in the current, 2017 ratings to McElwain’s averages, then you get an average of 14.67 in recruiting rank for McElwain, a 25 for FPI, and a 36 for efficiency. But I also don’t think ESPN’s FPI and Efficiency ratings paint the most accurate depiction of an entire season.

What sticks out to me about McElwain and Stoops is the recruiting class each inherited when they came into the SEC. A recruiting class should not be a direct indication of how a team should perform the same year, because the majority of the recruits are freshmen, and a only a small number of those freshmen see the field in their first year with a team.

Stoops inherited three classes worth of Joker Phillips recruits when he assumed the head job at Kentucky in 2013. Kentucky’s 2012 recruiting class ranked 50th in the nation, 2011 ranked 36th (which was the best in 11 years according to 247), and in 2010, Kentucky’s class rank was 49th.

Looking back further, Kentucky only cracked the top 50 recruiting classes once from 2005-09, landing the 47th ranked class in 2009. That’s a pretty long history of attracting below-average talent, especially in the SEC. Stoops has recruited at a higher level than any other Kentucky coach since they started ranking recruiting classes.

Let’s compare Jim McElwain to his two predecessors. Here are the rankings of Florida’s recruiting classes under Urban Meyer’s tenure from 2005-2010: 12th, 2nd, 1st, 5th, 7th, and 1st. How about Will Muschamp’s four years from 2011-14?: 11th, 3rd, 3rd, 9th. McElwain’s first recruiting class was the first time the Gators had finished outside the top 20 in recruiting rankings since 2001. McElwain’s second-best class equaled Meyer’s worst (12th), and his most recent and best class in 2017 equaled the ranking of Muschamp’s worst class (11th).

I think a more accurate depiction of performance would be to average the rankings of a coach’s current-year recruiting class along with the rankings of the three prior years. Imagine what McElwain’s performance would look like then.

Based on star rankings, the Gators outclass the Wildcats on both offense (3.5 to 2.9 average star ranking) and defense (3.6 to 3.1). The fact that Stoops hasn’t shown an ability to maximize his talent only widens that gap. McElwain was out coached by Jim Harbaugh and didn’t do a great job against Tennessee. But his track record is significantly stronger than Stoops.

Saying Stoops hasn’t been able to maximize his talent is probably the most ridiculous claim this guy makes. The caliber of talent Stoops was left when he came to Kentucky was comparable to a middle-of-the-road MAC school. Stoops was one win (really one play) away from becoming bowl eligible in just his second season as a head coach, finishing 5-7 in 2014. The next season was somewhat disappointing, and the argument could be made that he underperformed with a repeat, 5-7 record in 2015. But 2016 was the first season Stoops had a full roster of players that were his own recruits, and the Wildcats finished tying the best regular season record since 1984 with seven wins. Since going 0-2 against Southern Miss and Florida to start the 2016 season, the Wildcats have a 10-4.

Florida still has more talent than Kentucky, but Stoops is working to close the gap with the high-level SEC programs, while McElwain seems to be recruiting in the opposite direction for the Gators. Stoops had the number 22 class in 2014. In McElwain’s first year, 2015, Florida had the number 21 signing class.

So why is Florida only a 3-point favorite?

They’re not. That line has been cut in half as of 1:45 p.m. Friday.

And at the end of the day, I keep going back to this. In 2016, Kentucky was 10 points worse than Florida against SEC opponents. Three games against middling teams does not convince me that Kentucky’s statistical improvements are real.

But it’s not 2016. It’s 2017, and at the end of the day, I keep going back to this. Florida lost seven defensive starters to the NFL and an eighth to injury. They graduated two members of their starting offensive line from last season. Their top running back and top receiver from a year ago are suspended indefinitely, potentially facing felony charges. Their quarterback is a freshman going on the road for the first time in the SEC to a sold-out stadium. Kroger Field is going to be LIT. Keep sleeping on the Cats, Mr. Miles.

Go Big Blue. #EndTheStreak!