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It’s really tempting to talk yourself into Kentucky football in 2017

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Here’s why, and here’s what you should be concerned about.

NCAA Football: Kentucky at Louisville Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

While many of us looked to the south and wondered, Mark Stoops turned and faced north. He signed three Ohio high schoolers (one a four-star) in his abbreviated 2013 class, but given a full year to prepare, he outright invaded. In all, nearly 40 percent of UK's 2014 class hailed from the Buckeye State.

"It's home base," Stoops says. "Ohio was part of the plan all along."

We hear a lot about how the SEC is so successful because it sits on a goldmine. The states of Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Louisiana produce enough talent to fill every SEC, ACC, and Sun Belt squad. Basically everybody east of Texas recruits Florida. The SEC added schools from Texas and Missouri in 2012.

And by making Ohio "nearby," the reach is even larger.

Blueprint for a Rebuild (2014)

Stoops came to Lexington with a plan. He was going to look both south and north for recruits. He was going to rally the boosters for infrastructure. He was going to play a long game.

Kentucky’s 2017 roster has 29 players from Ohio and only 24 from Kentucky, including walk-ons. Check. A fancy new training center came online last summer. Check. Stoops’ vision was coming together after three years. The next step: actually winning some games.

After a 2-10 start, his Wildcats had gone 5-7 in back-to-back seasons, starting 4-1 in 2014 and 5-3 in 2015 but slumping and missing the postseason both times. The defense surged to 50th in Def. S&P+ in 2014 but regressed the next year. The offense was a listless mess despite speed in the skill positions.

You don’t usually survive too many missed opportunities. Stoops needed to make some headway in 2016. And for that to happen, all he needed was for his painstaking plans to go awry.

Stoops had brought in offensive coordinator Eddie Gran and quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw from Cincinnati to liven up an offense that had slumped to 103rd in Off. S&P+ the year before. The Bearcats had ranked 23rd in Passing S&P+ in 2015 despite QB injuries, and Gran’s preference appeared to be a fast-paced, pass-heavy attack.

The season began almost perfectly. Four-star sophomore Drew Barker completed 12 of his first 20 passes against Southern Miss for 319 yards and four touchdowns, and the Wildcats bolted to a 35-10 lead over a Golden Eagles team that turned out to be pretty good.

The next 24 dropbacks resulted in six completions, five interceptions, eight sacks, and a net loss of 35 yards. Southern Miss finished the game on a 34-0 run to win by nine, and Florida demolished the Wildcats, 45-7, in Week 2.

Barker’s second pass against NMSU in Week 3 was intercepted, too, and he aggravated a back injury in the process. He wouldn’t play again in 2016. Backup plan and JUCO transfer Stephen Johnson came in and torched NMSU but struggled passing against South Carolina, Alabama, and Vandy. UK went 2-1 against those teams but never scored over 20 points.

At some point, Gran and company reassessed. Freshman Benny Snell Jr. had rushed for 136 yards against NMSU in his first action, and Johnson had rushed 10 times for 51 yards (sans sacks). Hmm. Desperate for a jolt against Vandy, with Johnson going 10-for-24, the Wildcats handed to Snell 20 times, and he ground out 94 yards.

Basically during a mid-October bye week, Kentucky became a run-first team. It also became a Snell-first team. Through five games, Snell had rushed 41 times to 67 for Stanley “Boom” Williams and 27 for Jojo Kemp. Over the next seven games, the 220-pounder carried 138 times to Williams’ 83 and Kemp’s 40. Snell continued to average about six yards per carry, and as complementary pieces, Williams and Kemp saw their per-carry averages rise.

Oh yeah, and Kentucky scored a lot more points. The Wildcats averaged 24.5 points per game in their first six games and 37.5 in their next six. The run game thrived enough to distract defenses and open up passing lanes. They won four of six — including a road upset of Louisville — and won seven games for the first time since 2009.

There were still flaws. The defense was capable of slowing lesser offenses but got torched by just about any with a pulse and finished 86th in Def. S&P+. As is often the case, the team was a bit on the happy-to-be-here side and got thumped by Georgia Tech in the TaxSlayer Bowl.

Still, the improvement was stark. And it was based around a guy who will be in a UK uniform for at least two more years.

The best programs are adaptable. Stoops’ offensive vision in no way came to fruition, but the Wildcats suddenly became dangerous despite that. And if Stoops and new defensive coordinator Matt House can find traction on defense, UK might be onto something.

NCAA Football: TaxSlayer Bowl-Kentucky vs Georgia Tech
Mark Stoops
Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

2016 in review

2016 Kentucky statistical profile.

As seemed to be the case for every SEC East team last year, when the offense got better, the defense got worse. SEC quarterbacking got better once all the new QBs had settled in.

  • First 6 games (3-3): Avg. percentile performance: 49% (43% offense, 44% defense) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 5.7, UK 5.5 (minus-0.2) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: plus-0.4 PPG
  • Next 6 games (4-2): Avg. percentile performance: 56% (69% offense, 38% defense) | Avg. yards per play: UK 7.2, Opp 6.6 (plus-0.6) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: plus-10.7 PPG

Over the back half, the Wildcats averaged 1.7 more yards per play and allowed 0.9 more. That’s still a net gain, but the definition of how a UK game played out changed dramatically, and it makes the full-season rankings — 53rd in Off. S&P+, 86th in Def. S&P+ — feel inadequate. They almost needed two different sets of rankings.


Offense

Kentucky offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

The Gran-Johnson offense was based entirely on standard-downs success. When the Wildcats were running well, the play action game could be deadly. Against Mississippi State and Missouri, Johnson completed 31 of 56 passes for 500 yards and four touchdowns, and against Louisville he was 16-for-27 for 338 and three.

When opponents let Snell, Williams, and company run wild but kept an eye on the passing game, UK beat itself. Over the last seven games — i.e. Snell Time — Johnson completed 57 percent of his passes with a monstrous 170.2 passer rating in the Wildcats’ four wins. In their three losses: 49 percent completion rate, 96.1 passer rating. Snell remained excellent, but the passing game made or broke the offense.

NCAA Football: Kentucky at Louisville
Stephen Johnson
Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

That leaves Gran with an interesting decision. Johnson was the first-stringer heading into preseason camp, but Barker is healthy again, and redshirt freshman Gunnar Hoak was impressive in the spring.

Johnson’s running ability (6.2 yards per non-sack carry over seven or eight carries per game) kept defenses on their heels, but if Gran determines that Snell is going to do well regardless, he could go with Barker or Hoak to add heft to the passing game. I’m going to assume Johnson retains the job, but you could see why the alternative will get consideration.

The receiving corps has plenty of experience. Some upside, too. The Wildcats return four of last year’s top six targets: seniors Garrett Johnson and Dorian Baker, junior Tavin Richardson, and junior tight end C.J. Conrad. Plus, four-star freshman receivers Lynn Bowden Jr. and JaVonte Richardson were among the stars of the 2017 class.

This was not an efficient passing game — nobody in the receiving corps hit even a 50 percent success rate, and Baker’s success rate was a dreadful 31 percent — but the play-action potential is still dynamite. Johnson averaged 15 yards per catch, Baker 14.9, and Richardson 17.8.

NCAA Football: Austin Peay at Kentucky
Garrett Johnson
Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Still, this is a rushing offense, and in Snell, the Wildcats have one of the best rushers in the league. With both Williams and Kemp gone, depth could be an issue. Lithe junior Sihiem King has been small-sample lightning in a bottle — in two years, he’s carried 22 times for 208 yards — and might become one hell of a Snell complement, but after him are redshirt freshman A.J. Rose and true freshman Bryant Koback.

The line is bountiful. Six returnees have started at least three games in their respective careers (including two-year starting guard Nick Haynes), and they average 6’5, 312. Just about every backup is 300-plus, as well, and sophomore tackle Landon Young, a former blue-chipper, might be ready to come into his own. Pass protection could be an issue, but they should give Snell, King, and Johnson the run blocking they need.

Defense

Kentucky defensive radar

Stoops was a successful defensive coordinator before he got the UK job, and his own DC, D.J. Eliot, was just stolen away by Colorado.

That might lead you to assume Kentucky’s defense has been in good shape. That would be an incorrect assumption.

In four seasons under Stoops and Eliot, UK ranked 89th, 50th, 68th, and 86th in Def. S&P+. That doesn’t set the bar high for new DC Matt House, who landed as inside linebackers coach last year after two years as coordinator at Pitt and one at FIU.

House has somewhat mistimed his promotions. At FIU, he inherited the remnants of a defense that had surged to 52nd in Def. S&P+, but his far less experienced group ranked 102nd. At Pitt, he peaked at 32nd in 2013 but got lost in the shuffle when head coach Paul Chryst took the Wisconsin job.

The Wildcats were decent in pass defense (64th in Passing S&P+) but woeful against the run:

  • 93rd in Rushing S&P+
  • 119th in Adj. Line Yards
  • 124th in rushing success rate
  • 127th in opportunity rate
  • 126th in stuff rate
  • 102nd in power success rate

The Wildcats were the only team after September to hold Missouri’s Damarea Crockett under 5.4 yards per carry, but they otherwise became a sieve. Tennessee rushed for 376 yards, Mississippi State 281, Louisville 280, Georgia Tech 266, and Austin Peay 257.

The run defense was decent over the first half, but the downturn was stark. The rotation in the front seven wasn’t large, and that probably didn’t help. But it was strange: star linebacker Jordan Jones increased his rate of tackles for loss as the year went on — 3.5 in the first four games, four in the next four, and eight in the last five — but UK’s run defense grew less stable.

Most of that front seven returns, though, including the top three linemen and top five linebackers. Jones, end Denzil Ware, and pass-rushing ace Josh Allen are stars, and if interesting younger pieces like redshirt freshman ends Jaylin Bannerman and Boogie Watson, JUCO transfer Phil Hoskins, or four-star freshman rush end Joshua Paschal can deliver at least backup reps, then maybe they won’t suffer the same slide.

New Mexico State v Kentucky
Jordan Jones and Kendall Randolph
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The run defense better improve because a couple of the secondary’s steadier pieces are gone.

Kentucky’s pass defense improved around the time the run defense regressed, strangely enough. The Wildcats allowed at least a 135 passer rating in four of their first five games but only three of their final eight. They picked off Louisville’s Lamar Jackson three times, albeit while allowing 16 completions for 281 yards.

This was neither a good nor bad secondary, but it seemed to improve. It was never a disruptive unit (UK was 102nd in DB havoc rate), though.

Junior safety Mike Edwards is strong, and junior corners Derrick Baity and Chris Westry are decent pieces, but the loss of nickel back Blake McClain and free safety Marcus McWilson (combined: five tackles for loss, four interceptions) could hurt a bit. And really, the most important returnee in terms of pass defense might be Allen at linebacker. He was a one-trick pony, but it was a good trick: he had seven sacks and four forced fumbles.

Younger players like sophomores Marcus Walker, Jordan Griffin, and Kei Beckham saw rotation time last year but didn’t do much with it. One would assume that JUCO transfer Lonnie Johnson, four-star freshman Tyrell Ajian, and other youngsters could cram their way into the rotation.

NCAA Football: SEC Media Days
Mike Edwards
Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Kentucky might have been the only team to rank in the top five in one special teams category and the bottom five in another.

Charles Walker wasn’t incredibly explosive in punt returns, but he was tremendous as preventing successful punts and carving out yards, enough so that he ranked third in punt return efficiency.

Meanwhile, UK’s punting was a damn disaster. Grant McKinniss averaged 39.2 yards per punt, and the Wildcats were dead last in punt efficiency.

It probably isn’t surprising, then, that UK’s Special Teams S&P+ ranking was right in the middle: 66th. The return of Walker and solid place-kicker Austin MacGinnis give the Wildcats a couple of potential strengths, but that only matters so much until the punting improves.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep at Southern Miss 84 9.1 70%
9-Sep Eastern Kentucky NR 47.9 100%
16-Sep at South Carolina 36 -3.4 42%
23-Sep Florida 15 -9.4 29%
30-Sep Eastern Michigan 96 17.1 84%
7-Oct Missouri 53 4.5 60%
21-Oct at Mississippi State 30 -5.2 38%
28-Oct Tennessee 24 -2.8 43%
4-Nov Ole Miss 26 -2.4 44%
11-Nov at Vanderbilt 63 1.0 52%
18-Nov at Georgia 20 -10.0 28%
25-Nov Louisville 14 -9.6 29%
Projected S&P+ Rk 41
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 35 / 64
Projected wins 6.2
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -1.7 (79)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 30 / 29
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -7 / -1.9
2016 TO Luck/Game -2.0
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 81% (87%, 76%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 6.7 (0.3)

Snell is awesome (and King could be a dynamic backup), the passing game is full of juniors and seniors, and the defense has a nice mix of seasoned upperclassmen and high-upside youngsters trying to steal their jobs.

That defense worries me, though. In theory, recent recruiting could give the Wildcats better depth, but it’s hard to assume that. And even with Ware, Jones, Allen, and Edwards, this wasn’t a disruptive group. They got away with it when facing young QB after young QB in the SEC East, but those quarterbacks are far more experienced this time.

Either way, the schedule is tricky. S&P+ gives Kentucky between a 38 and 60 percent chance of winning in six games; plus, for confusion’s sake, UK is given a 70 percent chance at Southern Miss (after losing to the Golden Eagles at home last year) and a 29 percent at home against Louisville (after winning on the road). This is a tense schedule, from start to finish, and the Wildcats’ fate will be dictated by their ability to maneuver in close games. They were 4-1 in one-possession games last year. Might that flip?

The simple fact that we’re talking about stakes and tension and close games shows growth, though.

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