By RICHARD CHEEKS
Reflections On 2016
The Kentucky Wildcat football team completed the 2016 season at the Tax Slayer Bowl (Formerly Gator Bowl) in Jacksonville, Florida. Yes, the loss to Georgia Tech was a disappointing finish to an otherwise very successful football season. Reflecting on the season, few, if any, were willing to predict a bowl trip, much less wins over South Carolina, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, Missouri, AND Louisville at halftime of game 3 against New Mexico State.
The Cats lost the first two to Southern Mississippi after dominating the first 25 minutes of the game, and in week 2, the Cats simply did not show up in Gainesville Florida, losing 7-45. At the half against New Mexico State, the Cats were tied tied, losing in the stats on first downs, rushing and passing against a team that Vegas believed was at least 22 points inferior to the Cats. In addition, the Cats lost its starting quarterback, Drew Barker, in the first offensive series of the game, and suddenly transfer Stephen Johnson was thrust into the role of running the offense.
The Cats (and Stephen Johnson) found a winning combination in the second half of game 3, ending with a 20 point, 62-42 win. However, through the first 3 games, the Cats stood 1-2, had been outscored 104-131, and had an Adjusted Net Efficiency of -0.166 points per possession. This was a dismal and disappointing start for Coach Stoops’ fourth season at the helm. Pre-season expectations, indeed pre-season demands, for Coach Stoops’ program included at least 6 wins and a bowl trip following the 5-7 finishes in 2014 and 2015. The defense in 2016 through 3 games was porous to be kind, and now the high powered offense, built around Drew Barker’s arm, was without that arm and appeared rudderless.
Coach Stoops made two critical changes. First, he assumed a personal role and responsibility for the defensive side of the ball. Second, his offensive staff shifted its offensive design from the pass oriented attack that Drew Barker’s arm would support to a run oriented attack to diminish the significance of Stephen Johnson’s less impressive throwing arm. The results were nothing short of amazing and quickly seen.
The Cats pulled out a win over South Carolina in week 4. However, the Cats then had the unenviable task of traveling to Tuscaloosa, Alabama for their Game 5 to face the consensus #1 team in the land. Yes, it is true that the Cats left Alabama 2-3 on the season, but it is also true that the Cats’ performance in T-Town was notably improved. Alabama was 4-0, having scored 48, 52, 48, and 38 points in its first four games. The Cats “held” the Tide to only 34 points. The Tide defense only allowed Southern California to score 6 points in its marquee season opener at a neutral field, and the Cats managed to score 6 on the Tide despite its offensive woes given Barker’s loss to injury and Stephen Johnson struggling to find his identity in the new offensive scheme.
Following the Alabama trip, Stephen Johnson led the Cats to three consecutive wins, beating Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, and at Missouri to move to a 5-3 record with 4 games remaining on the schedule. When Georgia came to town for game 9, hopes were running high that the Cats could possibly get to its critical 6th win and lift a great burden from Coach Stoops’ shoulder. Many believed that a win over Georgia in Game 9 would allow the team to relax and play great football over the final 3 games, getting an almost assured 7th win against Austin Peay in Game 11. This line of thinking allowed speculation about a possible 8th win at either Tennessee or Louisville.
However, the Cats could not put away the Dawgs, and lost a heart breaker, 24-27, falling to 5-4. This was a huge loss for the Cats even though the essential 6th win was all but assured when the Cats would play Austin Peay in Game 11. The Georgia loss clearly took wind from the Cats’ sails, and the Cats turned in a poor game in week 10 at Tennessee, losing by 13, 36-49. The Cats did get that elusive, and very important 6th win over Austin Peay which sent the Cats into Louisville’s Papa John’s Stadium already bowl eligible at 6-5.
In the battle of the Bluegrass, the Cats played like champions, and handed the high flying Cards a 41-38 loss to move to 7-5. The 7th win pushed the Cats up the bowl priority ladder and delivered that precious spot in the Tax Slayer Bowl against Georgia Tech. The bowl loss to Georgia Tech was a disappointing end to an otherwise very successful football season. While the Cats’ dismal start yielded an ANE -0.116 ppp through its first 3 games, the Cats played the final 10 games with an ANE of +1.153 ppp.
The 7-5 regular season in 2016, and most importantly the huge win at Louisville, boosted the Stoops’ program from rudderless to focused and advancing. The season provided the Stoops’ program additional days of practice and development in December, a bonus reserved only for teams that earn bowl appearances. The 2016 season performance has been instrumental in securing one of the strongest recruiting classes in UK history for this fall. The season put a kick in the step of the UK players and coaches, indeed the entire Big Blue Nation, as they conditioned and planned through the winter. Now, the Big Blue Nation is biding its time through the summer as the players and coaches labor through the summer of 2017 responding to great expectations for 2017 and beyond.
Anticipating 2017, and Beyond
Many have observed that the Cats will have a favorable schedule in 2017. However, UK’s 2017 football schedule will be very difficult for the Cats to navigate despite their recent improvements. The 12-game schedule has seven games at Kroger Field and five games on the road. The Cats will play at Southern Miss (Game 1), South Carolina (Game 3), Mississippi State (Game 7), Vanderbilt (Game 10), and Georgia (Game 11). The Cats will host EKU (Game 2), Florida (Game 4), Eastern Michigan (Game 5), Missouri (Game 6), Tennessee (Game 8), Mississippi (Game 9), and Louisville (Game 12).
How will the Cats find seven wins from this schedule to match last season’s wins and to earn a second consecutive bowl appearance?
At home, the Cats should handle EKU (Game 2), and Eastern Michigan (Game 5). However, given the Cats’ propensity to stumble in their season openers during the Stoops’ Era, Game 1 at Southern Mississippi poses an immediate threat to the Cats’ seven-win objective. Everyone associated with the UK program should still remember the sting of the Cats’ embarrassing loss to Southern Miss in last season’s opening game at Commonwealth Stadium. I believe Coach Stoops and his staff will have the full attention of the players for the 2017 opener on September 2 at Carlisle-Faulkner Field in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. If so, that would provide the Cats their third win.
Where will the Cats find four or more wins from the remaining nine games on its schedule to match last season’s seven wins? The Big Blue Nation will debate this question throughout the summer of 2017.
To start this debate, how do the Cats stack up statistically against their 2017 opponents? Using the 2016 statistical record as the starting point for this 2017 forecast, the Cats would be favored to win at Southern Mississippi by 10, over EKU by 16, at South Carolina by 4, over Eastern Michigan by 6, at Mississippi State by 1, at Vanderbilt by 2, and at Georgia by 2. If the season plays out in this manner (based solely on 2016 statistical comparisons), the Cats will win seven and achieve bowl eligibility to match last season. In addition, the statistical comparison between the Cats and Missouri indicate this will be pick ‘em game. The UK program has been trending up while Missouri has been trending down. If these multi-year trends continue, the Cats could secure an 8th win when it hosts Missouri.
A note of caution is in order because six of these eight projected “wins” have a theoretical margin that is less than 10 points. This means that six of these eight projected “wins” are also games the Cats could lose with a below average game, or if the Cats sustain even minor slippage from last season’s 1.153 ppp ANE. Further, the statistical comparisons indicate the four projected “losses” have theoretical margins of -1 (Mississippi), -2 (Florida), -3 (Tennessee), and -9 (Louisville). This means that all four of these projected “losses” are also games the Cats could win with an above average game, or if the Cats post even minor gains from last season’s 1.153 ppp ANE.
In 2017, two of the Cats’ 12 games are probable wins, with the remaining 10 games having a theoretical margin within +/- 10 points. This introduces greater uncertainty into the 2017 season because the outcome of these 10 games will be based on how well the Cats and each of these opponents in those specific games. It is important to note that the 2017 schedule does not include a single game that is a probable loss based on these pre-season comparisons. That is a significant departure from prior seasons, which consistently indicated 3 to 5 games in the probable loss category.
For the first time in recent memory, the Cats should be competitive in every game they play, which is the product of sustained programmatic improvements during the first four years of the Stoops’ Era. The Cats’ 2016 level of efficiency over the last 10 games of 2016 (1.153 ppp) was sufficient to sustain the annual improvement that this program has experienced as Coach Stoops continues to push this program forward.
In Coach Phillips’ last season, the Cats posted an ANE of -0.260 ppp, and in Coach Stoops’ first four seasons, the values have been 0.224 ppp (2013), 0.982 ppp (2014), 0.768 ppp (2015), and 1.153 ppp (2016). In 2016, the Cats’ offensive efficiency (2.85 ppp) was the strongest of the Stoops’ Era. Based on the trend established over the last 4 seasons, it would be entirely reasonable to project continued improvement on the offensive side to about 2.95 ppp in 2017. In 2016, the Cats’ defensive efficiency (1.70 ppp) was the best of the Stoops’ Era, and was the fourth consecutive improvement in his four seasons. It is entirely reasonable to project continued improvement on the defensive side to about 1.53 ppp in 2017.
Therefore, the projected ANE for 2017 is 1.42 ppp, which is a more than a marginal improvement from the 1.153 ppp posted over the last 10 games of 2016. This represents an average improvement of about 3 to 3 ½ points per game improved margin, and sufficient to solidify the theoretical margins against Eastern Michigan, South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, and Georgia. In addition, the aforementioned pick ‘em game against Missouri shifts into the Cats’ win column. Finally, a 3 to 3 ½ points improvement over the 2016 results puts the Mississippi, Florida, and Tennessee games into play for the Cats.
An ANE of 1.42 ppp in 2017 will require an improvement of 0.27 ppp from the level of play in the last 10 games of 2016. While achievable, that represents a shift that will be difficult to achieve. Assuming the Cats can improve to an ANE of 1.42 or higher, it is entirely possible that the Cats could host Louisville at Kroger Field on November 25 as the SEC East Champion with an 11-0 record, with a realistic opportunity to complete an unbelievable 12-0 season with a second consecutive win over the Cards.
Oh, but let us not get ahead of ourselves with these visions of grandeur. For those who have followed my analysis of UK football over the years, you know that I am not prone to drinking the Big Blue Kool-Aide, especially not to this degree. To be sure, I do not expect these Cats to win 9, 10, or 11 games, much less to run the table in 2017. However, I have every expectation that these Cats will win seven games and could move up the college football ladder with an 8th regular season win in 2017. I also realize that the Cats are likely to lose one or two along the way that they probably should not lose, and that the Cats are likely to win one or two along the way that they probably should not win. That is the nature of competitive sport.
Will the Cats consolidate and build upon their 2016 gains, thus rise to this challenge in 2017? On September 2, 2017 we will begin to learn the answer.