By RICHARD CHEEKS
Earlier this year, prior to the August football camp for the UK team, it seemed clear that the Cats would reveal their 2016 fortunes very quickly, in Game 1, because Southern Mississippi is no patsy, and the Cats would have to elevate their game above the 2015 levels of efficiency to get a win in Game 1. Furthermore, it seemed equally clear that should the Cats lose to Southern Mississippi, it would be difficult for this team to find the six wins necessary for a bowl in 2016 over the remaining 11 games.
The Cats lost their season opener to Southern Mississippi with a second half collapse that left coaches, players and fans collectively shaking heads as they attempted to find some reasonable explanation. After the Cats failed to show up against Florida in Week 2, losing 45-7, it seemed very clear that this team’s offense had not improved and the defense was undoubtedly AWOL. In the third game, against New Mexico State, Kentucky lost its starting quarterback following the first possession of the game, and found itself clawing from behind throughout the first half as the defense again allowed an opponent to score at will.
However, in the second half of Game 3, the defense showed signs of life and the offense benefitted from strong performances from two newcomers, quarterback Stephen Johnson filling in for injured Drew Barker, and Benny Snell, a freshman running back who ran with a strength and determination that has been missing from a UK backfield for many years. In Week 4, the Cats played perhaps one of their most complete games on both sides of the ball against an SEC opponent, defeating South Carolina by 7, 17-10.
In 2015, the Cats’ efficiency retreated from a recent high water mark established in the 2014 season. To achieve their essential goal of 6 wins and a bowl bid in 2016, the Cats must not only improve upon not just their 2015 efficiency, but also play at an efficiency that is higher than their recent high water mark of 2014. However, due to the poor play the second half of game 1, all of game 2, and the first half of game 3, this has not occurred.
The Cats’ efficiency after the first four games stands at 0.3 points per possession, a significant retreat from their 2015 result rather than the improvement discussed during the summer, a net efficiency of about 1.3 ppp. At this average level of play, the Cats will only be favored to win one more game this season.
However, the Cats still have a great opportunity to get one to three additional wins over an improved Vanderbilt team in Game 6, and over a declining Mississippi State team in Game 7 and a declining Georgia team in Game 9. If the Cats can improve their game over the next 2 to 3 weeks, sufficient to securing the win over Vanderbilt in Game 6, it is likely that by game day, the Cats will move into a favored position for their games against Mississippi State (Game 7) and Georgia (Game 9).
That means that despite losing the season opener to Southern Mississippi, the Cats could still achieve their 2016 goal of 6 wins and a bowl trip. While such an outcome is neither certain nor easily achieved, this outcome remains in play for this team, IF it can show substantive improvement against Alabama and in victory against Vanderbilt.
The remaining games, in order of likelihood of UK victories based on the current average efficiency of each team through the first 4 games are:
Austin Peay (Game 11): Current Forecast UK by 24 points
Vanderbilt (Game 6): Current Forecast Pick ‘Em
Georgia (Game 9) Current Forecast Pick ‘Em
Mississippi State (Game 7) Current Forecast MSU by 1 point
At Missouri (Game 8) Current Forecast Missouri by 12 points
At Tennessee (Game 10) Current Forecast Tennessee by 12 points
At Alabama (Game 5) Current Forecast Alabama by 23 points
At Louisville (Game 12) Current Forecast Louisville by 24 points
The improvement necessary to get four additional wins in 2016 is quite marginal, and readily achievable. For this reason, this is not a time for abandoning the 2016 football Cats, or throwing in the towel on the Stoops’ Coaching Era. Improvement must be the primary focus for the next 2 to 3 weeks leading to the Vanderbilt and Mississippi State games.