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By RICHARD CHEEKS
In 2012 and 2013, the Kentucky football schedule’s first four game included Louisville, Western, a MAC Opponent, and Florida. In 2012, Louisville was the first game, on the road, the other two non-conference games were at Commonwealth, and the Cats opened the SEC season on the road at Florida. In 2013, Western was the first game, on the road, the other two non-conference games were at Commonwealth, and the Cats opened the SEC season at home against Florida. Both years, the Wildcats finished the 4-game opening sequence 1-3, posting big wins against their MAC opponent in week 2, while losing to Louisville, Western, and Florida.
There seems to be a consensus among members of the Big Blue Nation that this UK team is playing substantially better football than its 2012 predecessors played through the first four games. However, an analysis of the numbers demonstrates that while there has been some improvement on the defensive side of the ball, the offense is languishing. These factors combine to show a very nominal net improvement in the quality of play. The illusion of a more significant level of improvement is created by a significant decline in schedule difficulty for the first four games of the current season as compared to the first four games of 2012.
On the one hand, some might conclude that playing Louisville and Western, one at home and the other on the road, one MAC opponent at Commonwealth, and opening the SEC against Florida each year would yield about the same schedule strengths. However, two factors make first 4 games of 2013 weaker than the same 4 games in 2012. The Cats played Florida at home instead of in Gainesville, and there is a huge strength difference between the two MAC opponents. Kent State in 2012 was about 20 points stronger than Miami of Ohio is in 2013. These factors combine to make the 2012 schedule significantly stronger through the first four games than the 2013 schedule has been. Quantitatively, the 2012 schedule, through four games, was about 127% stronger than an average NCAA D1 schedule, but the 2013 schedule through four games has been about 117% stronger than the NCAA D1 average schedule strength.
The raw numbers, unadjusted for schedule strength support the conclusion of improvement. The Cats have averaged 410 yards per game in 2013, up 34 yards per game on offense from 2012. Furthermore, the Cats have held opponents to 374 yards per game, down 26 yards per game on defense from 2012. In terms of scoring, the UK offense is producing only 21.8 ppg, down 1.2 ppg from 2012, but the UK defense is only allowing 23.3 ppg, down 5.7 ppg from 2012. The pace of play for the Cats has been marginally slower in 2013, with 11.3 possessions per game, down from 12.0 in 2012. The UK offense has been marginally more efficient at 1.933 points per possession in 2013, up from 1.917 ppp in 2012, but this increase is not a significant change in the unadjusted values. The defense has been more efficient at 2.114 ppp in 2013, down from 2.636 ppp in 2012, and this is a significant improvement on the defensive side. However, given the easier 2013 schedule in the first four games, the unadjusted data produce an inflated measure of the improvement. When these efficiencies are adjusted for schedule strength, the offense has been less efficient by about -0.16 ppp, and the defensive improvement is reduced to only 0.28 ppp. Therefore, the Adjusted Net Game Efficiency is slightly improved in 2013 from 2012 by about 0.12 points per possession.
While the trend is improving, the magnitude of the change is marginal and the adjusted NGE for UK is lagging far behind all of their SEC opponents, and the majority of their D1 non-conference opponents. This is why the preseason 3-9 projection has now transformed into a 2-10 projection. The elusive 3rd win should have been over WKU, but the Cats’ season opening loss to WKU (one of 3 games in which the Cats will be favored in 2013) dropped the projected win total from 3 to 2 games.
To put the current adjusted NGE into some perspective, consider that the closest SEC opponents (Arkansas, Auburn, and Tennessee) have adjusted NGE values so far in 2013 that are 0.6 ppp and 1.4 ppp higher than UK’s current value. The average SEC team has an adjusted NGE that is 1.7 ppp higher than the Cats’ current value in 2013. The top tier SEC teams (Alabama, LSU, and Georgia) have adjusted NGE values that are 2.3 ppp to 2.7 ppp higher than UK’s current value. UK is currently not playing at a level on par with the bottom of the conference, and the magnitude of improvement that will be required remains at a substantial level.
The task that lies ahead of Coach Stoops is daunting, to say the least.