clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Kentucky Wildcats can turn hope into results with a bowl trip in 2015

New, comments

Kentucky took a nice step forward and could improve again, but will Mark Stoops' UK be less overwhelmed by good opponents this time around?

Confused? Check out the advanced-stats glossary here.

1. One brick at a time

The University of Kentucky is sinking more than $150 million into construction of better football facilities. Commonwealth Stadium has undergone a considerable facelift in advance of the season. A new football building, with better offices and practice areas, is up next.

The Wildcats are reinventing themselves from bottom to top. Yes, UK will always be a basketball school, but there's room for more than one pastime. Here's what head coach Mark Stoops told me in last year's "Blueprint for a Rebuild" piece:

'Where [Kentucky's love of basketball] would hurt you is if people didn't care as much [about football], but that's not the case here. That's evident by the overwhelming support that we've been given since we've been here. That's given me more and more optimism. People are showing up. We've had overwhelming numbers at the spring games.'

He is referring to the 51,000 or so in attendance in April 2013. He's also referring to the 60,418 average attendance during UK's six home games against FBS opponents. The Wildcats won only one of those, but results don't matter yet.

'Donations are up. We've got $120 million of stadium renovations going on. We're building a football-only building with private donations. We're designing it right now. More than half the money's raised already.'

'Dealing with expectations now is different. People are excited and believe in what you're doing. Recruits believe in it. A lot of people have high expectations. That's a balancing act because ... I don't want to talk negatively about anything or anybody,' -- no coach does -- 'but it's obvious we're in a rebuild here. And that requires a longer period of time.'

Heading into his third year in Lexington, Stoops is probably noticing the equation is changing a bit. You incrementally lose the benefit of the doubt with each losing season, even if you show promise. In last year's six home games against FBS competition, attendance was down to 58,767. And after his 2014 recruiting class ranked 22nd in the 247Sports Composite, his 2015 class ranked 39th. He signed six 247 four-stars in 2014 and two this past February.

This is to be expected. There are stages in a rebuilding gig, and while Stoops nailed the grace period stage, that ends after a couple of years. Time to get to the nitty gritty.

Kentucky undoubtedly improved in 2014. The Wildcats went 5-7 and ranked 68th in the F/+ ratings, 26 spots higher than in 2013. This was the best team UK fielded since 2010 (6-7, 52nd).

But the season featured a twinge of disappointment. Kentucky began 5-1, missing out on 6-0 by virtue of an overtime loss in Gainesville. But with six opportunities to lock down bowl eligibility, the Wildcats couldn't get the job done. A back-loaded schedule wrecked UK's plans -- trips to LSU and Tennessee ended in blowout losses, as did a visit from Georgia. And competitive losses to Mississippi State, Missouri, and Louisville meant UK would fall short of the six-win mark.

Kentucky headed into 2015 disappointed and encouraged. And while the most effective piece of the defense (the pass rush) must be rebuilt, every other facet might improve. The Wildcats' schedule features an obnoxious eight home games, and a bowl trip is a distinct possibility.

We're years from knowing the ceiling of Stoops' program -- 6-6? 8-4? An occasional SEC East title challenge? -- but UK should follow second-year progress with third-year progress. The remodeling continues.

2014 Schedule & Results

Record: 5-7 | Adj. Record: 6-6 | Final F/+ Rk: 68
Date Opponent Opp. F/+ Rk Score W-L Percentile
Performance
Adj. Scoring
Margin
Win
Expectancy
30-Aug UT Martin N/A 59-14 W 93% 33.8 100%
6-Sep Ohio 106 20-3 W 90% 29.5 100%
13-Sep at Florida 32 30-36 L 49% -0.5 18%
27-Sep Vanderbilt 115 17-7 W 89% 28.7 100%
4-Oct South Carolina 38 45-38 W 70% 12.3 76%
11-Oct UL-Monroe 97 48-14 W 89% 28.3 100%
18-Oct at LSU 22 3-41 L 9% -31.4 0%
25-Oct Mississippi State 13 31-45 L 62% 7.2 26%
1-Nov at Missouri 20 10-20 L 21% -19.1 1%
8-Nov Georgia 4 31-63 L 24% -16.6 0%
15-Nov at Tennessee 24 16-50 L 5% -39.4 0%
29-Nov at Louisville 23 40-44 L 31% -11.3 3%

Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
S&P+ 27.7 74 26.2 51
Points Per Game 29.2 63 31.3 95

2. Three angles, same story

The single-game percentile data above is both useful and dangerous. It is designed to take a large load of variables and turn it into a single number -- you played like an X percentile team this week -- and it can be used to track trends, peaks, and valleys.

It can also tell you differing stories.

Looking at UK's 2014 from three angles, you get two narratives, both of which boil down to the Wildcats not quite being ready for success.

Angle No. 1:

  • Average Percentile Performance (first 6 games): 80% (~top 25 | record: 5-1)
  • Average Percentile Performance (last 6 games): 25% (~top 95 | record: 0-6)

That one's easy to decipher. Kentucky played like a strong team over the first half of the season, showing off a high-upside offense against UT Martin (10.8 yards per play!) and South Carolina (6.8) and an athletic defense against overwhelmed Ohio (3.7), Vanderbilt (3.0), and UL-Monroe (3.3). They manhandled weaker teams and showed resilience by charging past South Carolina. Despite a semi-impressive performance at Florida -- they managed a healthy 5.8 yards per play against a great defense but allowed 5.7 to a poor offense -- they were 5-1 and playing at a high level.

And then ... poof. The Wildcats were not ready for LSU's speedy defense or physical run game and got their doors blown off. With confidence appropriately damaged, they limped. The defense allowed fewer than 6.4 yards per play once in the last six games, and the offense averaged better than 4.7 once. The bottom dropped out for this young team.

Of course, the makeup of the schedule also changed. Angle No. 2:

  • Average Percentile Performance (home): 74% (~top 35 | record: 5-2)
  • Average Percentile Performance (away): 23% (~top 100 | record: 0-5)

Young teams are more likely to end up with a wide range between home and road performances. Kentucky went 5-2 at home, beating Vanderbilt and South Carolina and remaining within striking distance (down seven points with 2:30 left) of a Mississippi State team that had just moved to No. 1 in the polls. On the road against SEC opponents, the average score was Opponent 37, UK 15.

UK's schedule got more road-heavy over the last half. Therefore UK "faded."

The schedule also got more challenging. Angle No. 3:

  • Average Percentile Performance (vs. F/+ top 35): 29% (~top 90 | record: 0-7)
  • Average Percentile Performance (vs. No. 36-plus): 86% (~top 20 | record: 5-0)

Some teams overachieve against good competition and underachieve against bad. Not UK. The Wildcats fared well against teams with similar or inferior levels of athleticism. Against teams with more weapons, they had no way of picking up the slack.

Whichever way, the story was the same: UK wasn't quite ready.

Offense

FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 0.87 55 IsoPPP+ 105.5 54
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 38.4% 104 Succ. Rt. + 103.8 58
FIELD POSITION Def. Avg. FP 30.5 78 Def. FP+ 99.0 77
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 4.4 71 Redzone S&P+ 91.3 91
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 25.6 ACTUAL 15 -10.6
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 82 55 59 54
RUSHING 79 37 45 33
PASSING 64 71 70 73
Standard Downs 47 51 43
Passing Downs 84 81 76
Q1 Rk 76 1st Down Rk 38
Q2 Rk 20 2nd Down Rk 51
Q3 Rk 66 3rd Down Rk 20
Q4 Rk 105

3. Always be closing

If only the second quarter could last about 50 minutes. UK had one hell of a second-quarter offense -- the Wildcats scored 139 points in the first and third quarters combined and 129 in the second.

But the fourth quarter was generally a miserable experience. Quarterback Patrick Towles' rating fell from the 120s to 104.8 in the fourth. Running backs Stanley "Boom" Williams and Braylon Heard averaged 6.2 yards per carry in the first three quarters and 3.7 in the fourth.

Just as UK couldn't close the season strong, the Wildcats couldn't close games. Closing drives was an issue, too. UK was top-60 in efficiency (Success Rate+) and explosiveness (IsoPPP+) but 91st in the red zone, settling for 27 field goals and struggling to catch up to the chains.

I like for these previews to be prescriptive, so I hate saying "they were bad at this" and not diving into why. But aside from a lack of experience, it's hard to explain this. Towles was a sophomore, Williams a freshman, and leading receiver Ryan Timmons was a sophomore. With more weapons, perhaps this resolves itself.

For better or worse, there's a new play-caller. Coordinator Neal Brown left to become Troy's head coach, and Stoops replaced him with Dana Holgorsen's former O.C. at West Virginia, Shannon Dawson. WVU's run-pass rates were nearly identical to UK's, but the components differed -- WVU didn't have a mobile quarterback like Towles and had an All-American receiver in Kevin White instead of a grab bag of freshmen and sophomores. We'll see what changes Dawson makes.

Quarterback

Note: players in bold below are 2015 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.

Player Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Comp Att Yards TD INT Comp
Rate
Sacks Sack Rate Yards/
Att.
Patrick Towles 6'5, 240 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8902 225 393 2718 14 9 57.3% 36 8.4% 5.8
Reese Phillips 6'2, 225 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.7991 2 9 45 0 1 22.2% 0 0.0% 5.0
Drew Barker 6'3, 225 RSFr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9425








Running Back

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Rushes Yards TD Yards/
Carry
Hlt Yds/
Opp.
Opp.
Rate
Fumbles Fum.
Lost
Patrick Towles QB 6'5, 240 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8902 109 537 6 4.9 4.7 39.4% 8 2
Boom Williams RB 5'9, 196 So. 4 stars (5.9) 0.8983 74 486 5 6.6 11.3 31.1% 1 0
Braylon Heard RB
73 368 4 5.0 8.0 28.8% 1 1
Jojo Kemp RB 5'10, 200 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8607 71 340 4 4.8 4.4 40.8% 2 0
Mikel Horton RB 6'1, 226 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8812 59 306 2 5.2 5.0 42.4% 2 0
Josh Clemons RB
9 30 0 3.3 1.2 44.4% 0 0
Ryan Timmons WR 5'10, 192 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8668 5 -9 0 -1.8 N/A 0.0% 0 0
Reese Phillips QB 6'2, 225 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.7991 4 18 0 4.5 5.7 25.0% 2 0
William Mahone RB 5'9, 196 So. NR NR







4. Get Boom in the open field

Kentucky boasts skill players who have had exciting moments.

Ryan Timmons showed hints of explosiveness as a sophomore, mainly in the Mississippi State game (five catches, 114 yards). Garrett Johnson caught six passes for 154 yards against Florida (and 16 for just 117 against everybody else). Blake Bone had five catches for 113 yards in the first three games of his career last September. Running back JoJo Kemp averaged 8.9 yards per carry through the first month of 2013 and torched South Carolina for 131 yards on 17 carries last October.

Among a lot of players who have shown flashes, none has shown more than Williams. His freshman season was all sorts of up-and-down as he battled a head injury and a crowded depth chart. His performances were randomly great and feckless. In even-numbered games, he carried 44 times for 415 yards (9.4) and five touchdowns. In odd-numbered games, 30 for 71 (2.4) and no pay dirt.

For the season, only 31 percent of Williams' carries gained at least five yards. The national average for players with at least 70 carries was more than 37 percent. But when he found space, he did pretty nasty things. Not surprisingly, he's also a dangerous kick returner.

Without last year's two most dangerous receivers (Demarco Robinson, Javess Blue), the pressure might be on Williams. Hem him in if you want to beat Kentucky. A lot of UK's weapons are intriguing; Williams is dangerous.

Receiving Corps

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Targets Catches Yards Catch Rate Target
Rate
%SD Yds/
Target
NEY Real Yds/
Target
RYPR
Ryan Timmons WR 5'10, 192 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8668 71 45 536 63.4% 18.8% 53.5% 7.5 -9 7.7 76.0
Demarco Robinson WR
57 33 501 57.9% 15.1% 66.7% 8.8 94 8.9 71.0
Javess Blue WR
48 29 525 60.4% 12.7% 52.1% 10.9 170 11.4 74.5
Garrett Johnson WR 5'11, 182 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8550 40 22 271 55.0% 10.6% 52.5% 6.8 -3 6.6 38.5
Dorian Baker WR 6'3, 208 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8558 37 19 199 51.4% 9.8% 56.8% 5.4 -42 5.4 28.2
Jeff Badet (2013) WR 6'0, 182 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8433 32 21 262 65.6% 9.6% 65.4% 8.2 10 6.9 36.2
Blake Bone WR 6'5, 208 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8646 29 14 194 48.3% 7.7% 58.6% 6.7 14 6.7 27.5
Braylon Heard RB
26 21 108 80.8% 6.9% 46.2% 4.2 -136 4.2 15.3
Alexander Montgomery (2013) WR 6'2, 210 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8313 25 16 137 64.0% 7.5% 57.9% 5.5 -57 5.4 18.9
Boom Williams RB 5'9, 196 So. 4 stars (5.9) 0.8983 22 17 162 77.3% 5.8% 54.5% 7.4 -37 7.3 23.0
Joey Herrick WR 6'1, 203 Sr. NR NR 13 8 116 61.5% 3.4% 61.5% 8.9 18 9.3 16.4
T.V. Williams WR 5'10, 155 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8554 9 4 64 44.4% 2.4% 11.1% 7.1 12 5.0 9.1
Steven Borden TE
8 4 33 50.0% 2.1% 87.5% 4.1 -18 3.1 4.7
Thaddeus Snodgrass WR 6'1, 190 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8922
Darryl Long TE 6'4, 246 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8600
C.J. Conrad TE 6'5, 245 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8988
Jabari Greenwood WR 6'3, 195 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8681
Tavin Richardson WR 6'3, 218 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8481

Offensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs

LY/carry
Pass.
Downs

LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Team 105 2.73 3.79 36.4% 66.7% 21.9% 77.9 4.5% 13.4%
Rank 48 94 21 93 66 103 106 61 125
Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Career Starts Honors/Notes
Darrian Miller LT 37
Zach West LG 6'4, 305 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8681 30
Jon Toth C 6'5, 310 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8370 23
Jordan Swindle RT 6'7, 309 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8122 23
Ramsey Meyers RG 6'4, 320 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8351 12
Cole Mosier RG 6'6, 335 So. NR NR 2
Teven Eatmon-Nared LT
1
Nick Haynes LG 6'3, 308 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8088 1
Zach Myers C 6'3, 300 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8338 1
Kyle Meadows RT 6'5, 298 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8631 1
Nick Richardson LT 6'4, 285 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8723
Jarrett LaRubbio RG 6'6, 297 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8600
Jervontius Stallings LG 6'3, 335 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8206
George Asafo-Adjei LT 6'5, 325 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8751
Logan Stenberg OL 6'6, 330 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8587
Levon Livingston OL 6'7, 250 Fr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8539

5. Too many glitches up front

UK's line was the most experienced unit of the offense, with four returning starters, a senior, and two juniors.

The Wildcats were decent in short-yardage but allowed a ton of defenders into the backfield for stuffs and sacks. Part of that had to do with those in the backfield. Towles is a nice runner but trusted his legs far too much, especially on passing downs, and a runner like Williams is going to run into trouble. Still, this line didn't get quite as much push as one might have expected.

It can't hurt that there's even more experience this year. Four starters return, and eight have combined for 93 career starts. If the Wildcats can figure out who replaces three-year starting tackle Darrian Miller (the early favorite: redshirt freshman and Rivals four-star Nick Richardson), the line will be fine, especially with everyone a year more experienced.

(This assumes Towles is the starter. He showed enough potential, but blue-chip redshirt freshman Drew Barker was listed as an "OR" starter in this summer's media guide. The smart money is probably Towles, but it's an ongoing battle.)

SIGN UP FOR OUR COLLEGE FOOTBALL NEWSLETTER

Get all kinds of college football stories, rumors, game coverage, and Jim Harbaugh oddity in your inbox every day.

Defense

FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 0.84 60 IsoPPP+ 94.6 86
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 42.8% 84 Succ. Rt. + 96.0 84
FIELD POSITION Off. Avg. FP 30.6 58 Off. FP+ 102.0 38
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 4.6 90 Redzone S&P+ 90.0 106
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 25.3 ACTUAL 23.0 -2.3
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 77 82 86 86
RUSHING 91 73 63 82
PASSING 44 91 109 78
Standard Downs 96 86 95
Passing Downs 54 68 48
Q1 Rk 43 1st Down Rk 69
Q2 Rk 94 2nd Down Rk 77
Q3 Rk 117 3rd Down Rk 86
Q4 Rk 41

6. Improvement up front

The UK offense had its moments but achieved at the same level as 2013; the Wildcats ranked 77th in Off. S&P+ in 2013 and 74th in 2014. The defense, however, rebounded. After dropping to 89th in Def. S&P+ in Stoops' first season, he and coordinator D.J. Eliot utilized a nice pass rush in improving to 51st.

UK ranked third in the country in passing downs sack rate, but opponents came to realize passing was a less dangerous option than running on base downs. The Wildcats may have been able to pin their ears back on passing downs, but they were passive on standard downs, recording almost no sacks and making almost no run stops behind the line.

And whereas opponents had a meager 109.3 passer rating on third downs, it was 134.3 on first downs.

Youth was a less viable excuse last year. The line was populated by juniors and seniors, the linebacking corps was mostly juniors, and the secondary was mostly sophomores and juniors. The D simply didn't have enough weapons to be effectively aggressive.

The Wildcats were still young enough that they return seven starters and most of last year's second string, though.

Defensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs

LY/carry
Pass.
Downs

LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Team 97.6 3.06 3.56 41.3% 68.1% 16.9% 102 2.4% 13.1%
Rank 74 83 86 93 70 102 63 116 3
Name Pos Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Bud Dupree RUSH
12 59.5 8.4% 12.5 7.5 1 1 2 0
Za'Darius Smith DE
12 43.0 6.1% 7.0 4.5 0 2 0 1
Mike Douglas DT
12 26.5 3.7% 1.5 1.0 0 3 0 1
Melvin Lewis NG 6'4, 332 Sr. NR NR 12 25.5 3.6% 2.5 0.5 0 0 1 0
Jabari Johnson RUSH 6'1, 272 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8229 12 15.0 2.1% 4.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Farrington Huguenin DE 6'4, 282 Sr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7889 12 14.0 2.0% 1.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Regie Meant DT 6'4, 302 So. 2 stars (5.3) 0.8181 11 13.5 1.9% 2.0 2.0 0 0 1 1
Matt Elam NG 6'7, 360 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.9272 12 8.5 1.2% 0.0 0.0 0 2 0 0
Cory Johnson DT 6'3, 300 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8786 12 7.0 1.0% 4.0 2.5 0 1 1 0
Daron Blaylock RUSH 6'1, 226 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8367 10 6.0 0.8% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Christian Coleman DT
4 2.5 0.4% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Jacob Hyde NG 6'2, 320 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8544
Denzil Ware RUSH 6'2, 255 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.9051
Adrian Middleton DE 6'3, 295 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8635
Tymere Dubose DT 6'5, 315 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8322
Alvonte Bell DE 6'5, 260 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8107
Cortney Miggins DT 6'5, 285 Jr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.8800
Kengera Daniel DE 6'5, 260 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8575








Linebackers

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Josh Forrest MLB 6'3, 255 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8346 12 87.0 12.3% 8.5 1.0 2 2 1 0
Ryan Flannigan WLB 6'2, 225 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8377 12 42.5 6.0% 1.5 0.5 0 1 0 0
Khalid Henderson WLB 6'1, 235 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8510 12 40.0 5.6% 3.5 0.0 0 2 1 1
Jason Hatcher SLB 6'3, 252 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9222 11 24.0 3.4% 5.5 1.5 0 0 0 0
TraVaughn Paschal MLB
12 16.5 2.3% 1.0 1.0 0 1 0 0
Tyler Brause LB
10 4.0 0.6% 0.0 0.0 0 0 1 0
Kobie Walker SLB 6'3, 210 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8690
Nico Firios MLB 6'2, 230 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8541
Dorian Hendrix MLB 6'0, 232 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8515
Eli Brown LB 6'2, 206 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9006
Jordan Jones WLB 6'2, 215 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8782








7. Wanted: pass rushers

It's easy to see the offense taking a nice step forward, but the defense will be without last year's most proven weapons.

Ends Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith combined for 12 sacks. They didn't do much damage unless opponents were in must-pass situations, and they didn't have much of a run presence (combined: 7.5 non-sack tackles for loss), but they were a nice situational duo, and UK is without them and starting tackle Mike Douglas.

It's hard to worry too much about the run defense. Middle linebacker Josh Forrest was easily the Wildcats' best run stuffer, and he's back, as are seniors Ryan Flannigan and Khalid Henderson and part-time end Jason Hatcher, who will provide a large presence on the strong side [Update: Hatcher's suspended against UL-Lafayette and South Carolina]. The linebacking corps should be solid, and goodness knows thetackles have plenty of size -- nose guards Melvin Lewis, Matt Elam, and Jacob Hyde average 6'4, 337.

I would expect UK's run defense to improve beyond last year's No. 73 Rushing S&P+ ranking, but it's hard to know where the pass rush might come from. Wildcats not named Alvin or Za'Darius made just 15 sacks, and only one returnee (backup tackle Cory Johnson) had more than two. (He had all of 2.5.)

UK might need the excellent 2014 class to quickly bear fruit if it wants to improve on pass defense. Ends Denzil Ware and Adrian Middleton and linebackers Kobie Walker, Nico Firios, and Dorian Hendrix could all carve out niches if they can reach the quarterback.

Secondary

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
A.J. Stamps S 6'0, 205 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8022 12 48.5 6.8% 1 0 4 5 0 0
Fred Tiller CB 6'0, 180 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8419 12 38.5 5.4% 1 0.5 2 9 0 0
Ashely Lowery S
12 34.0 4.8% 0.5 0.5 2 0 0 0
Cody Quinn CB 5'10, 180 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8357 12 29.5 4.2% 0 0 0 5 0 0
Marcus McWilson S 6'0, 208 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8999 12 24.0 3.4% 1 0 3 1 0 0
J.D. Harmon CB 6'2, 197 Jr. NR NR 12 23.0 3.2% 2 0 0 0 2 0
Blake McClain S 5'11, 195 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8181 11 21.0 3.0% 2 2 0 6 0 0
Nate Willis CB
12 18.0 2.5% 0 0 1 4 0 0
Kendall Randolph CB 6'0, 180 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8768 12 13.5 1.9% 2 1 0 1 1 0
Glenn Faulkner CB 6'2, 208 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9094 10 6.5 0.9% 0 0 0 1 0 0
Jaleel Hytchye CB 5'10, 175 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8526
Zack Blaylock S 6'0, 193 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8453
Darius West S 6'0, 206 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9067
Mike Edwards S 6'0, 200 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8888
Jared Tucker CB 5'11, 175 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8487
Marcus Walker S 6'1, 185 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8764
Kei Beckham CB 5'11, 170 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8634
Chris Westry S 6'4, 185 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8469

8. Experience, at least

The secondary returns plenty of experience and playmaking potential. Senior corners Fred Tiller and Cody Quinn combined for 16 passes defensed, safeties A.J. Stamps, Marcus McWilson, and Blake McClain combined for four tackles for loss, seven picks, and 12 break-ups. Not bad!

But while the sum of the parts seemed decent, the whole was awful -- UK ranked 109th in Passing Success Rate+ and 91st in overall Passing S&P+. Yuck.

Last year's struggles, combined with solid recruiting, could mean younger guys get opportunities to pass upperclassmen. Four-star sophomore Kendall Randolph made plays in limited opportunities, and two Rivals four-stars, safeties Darius West and Mike Edwards, are available after redshirt years.

UK wasn't awful in the big-play department, but the Wildcats were hindered by being unable to force mundane plays. If the defense is to improve again without Dupree and Smith, growth in the secondary will be why.

Special Teams

Punter Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Punts Avg TB FC I20 FC/I20
Ratio
Landon Foster 6'1, 178 Sr. 66 42.6 4 22 27 74.2%
Kicker Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Kickoffs Avg TB OOB TB%
Austin MacGinnis 5'10, 175 So. 67 59.1 25 1 37.3%
Place-Kicker Ht, Wt 2015
Year
PAT FG
(0-39)
Pct FG
(40+)
Pct
Austin MacGinnis 5'10, 175 So. 41-41 13-15 86.7% 8-12 66.7%
Returner Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Returns Avg. TD
Boom Williams KR 5'9, 196 So. 19 26.9 0
Demarco Robinson KR 10 19.5 0
Demarco Robinson PR 24 7.4 0
Category Rk
Special Teams F/+ 107
Field Goal Efficiency 8
Punt Return Efficiency 87
Kick Return Efficiency 86
Punt Efficiency 105
Kickoff Efficiency 117
Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency 46

9. Worst. Coverage unit. Ever.

Austin MacGinnis proved powerful and reliable for a freshman place-kicker. Punter Landon Foster was a fair catch machine. Boom Williams proved scary, if inefficient, in kick returns.

Special teams had assets, but the Wildcats ranked 107th in special teams efficiency, mainly because of heinous coverage. UK allowed 22.5 yards per kick return (100th in FBS), 12.7 yards per punt return (114th), and four combined return touchdowns.

Improved young depth in the receiving corps and secondary could help. Actually, let's rephrase; it better help. Special teams cost UK points and field position.

2015 Schedule & Projection Factors

2015 Schedule
Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk
5-Sep UL-Lafayette 84
12-Sep at South Carolina 31
19-Sep Florida 29
26-Sep Missouri 23
3-Oct Eastern Kentucky NR
15-Oct Auburn 5
24-Oct at Mississippi State 21
31-Oct Tennessee 20
7-Nov at Georgia 3
14-Nov at Vanderbilt 83
21-Nov Charlotte 120
28-Nov Louisville 32
Five-Year F/+ Rk -11.8% (80)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 27 / 31
2014 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 8 / -0.3
2014 TO Luck/Game +3.4
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 14 (7, 7)
2014 Second-order wins (difference) 5.2 (-0.2)

10. If you can't make a bowl with this schedule...

I'm guessing Kentucky improves again. The offense, more experienced at every level, should take a step forward after stagnation, and while the pass defense is a mystery, the run defense should be solid. After a No. 68 ranking in 2014 F/+, I could easily see a rise into the No. 50 range.

That type of rating doesn't guarantee you a bowl in the SEC, but the schedule does UK all sorts of favors. The non-conference slate features home games against UL-Lafayette, Eastern Kentucky, and FBS newcomer Charlotte, and the Wildcats will likely be favored when they travel to Vanderbilt in mid-November. Those four games should mean that they need to only go 2-6 against the rest to reach the postseason for the first time in five years. Beat Florida on September 19, and they need to win one of seven.

Of course, those seven are brutal: visits from four potentially ranked teams, plus visits to Mississippi State, Georgia, and South Carolina.

The upcoming Football Outsiders Almanac 2015 projects UK 73rd and gives the Wildcats a win expectancy of 4.1 wins. I expect more, but 6-6 might be the ceiling.

But hey, that would represent growth, one more layer for the foundation. Stoops and UK are building steadily, and the Wildcats have enough potential to take another step.