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Kentucky is underachieving under Mark Stoops. Also: Kentucky is doing just fine.

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Success is in the eye of the beholder, and while Stoops should be doing more in Lexington, he’s doing *enough*, at least.

NCAA Football: Florida at Kentucky
Mark Stoops
Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

How do we define success for Kentucky football?

No seriously, I’m asking. I’ve never really been sure.

It’s easy to label UK as the same type of basketball-first program as an Indiana or a Kansas, since at least Bear Bryant’s story about playing second fiddle to Adolph Rupp nearly 70 years ago.

Since Bryant left Lexington for the greener football pastures of College Station, the UK football team has finished ranked just three times and finished sixth or better in the polls once. The basketball program: 47 of the former, 30 of the latter.

Still, Kentucky doesn’t ignore football. With the revenue the Wildcats bring in, the money they have invested in the program, and the fact that they have averaged at least 50,000 in attendance for each of the last five years (Indiana hasn’t topped 45K in that span, and poor Kansas hasn’t topped 37K), it feels like there’s more potential here than in the other Power 5 “basketball schools.”

Before we try to figure out how well Stoops is doing, though, let’s try to set a bar. What should we expect from UK football? Let’s use a few different categories to try and figure this out.

  • Historical average. In college football, what you’ve been is most likely what you will be. Since the end of World War II, Kentucky’s average S&P+ ranking is 52nd. Over the last 25 years, it’s 67th.
  • Recruiting average. The caliber of recruits you can attract also sets a bar of sorts. Going back to 2002, UK’s average class has fallen in the 54th percentile, equivalent to about a No. 56 ranking.
  • $$$$$. It doesn’t always work this way, but the money you spend should approximately translate to the quality of your athletics department. Of the 109 public FBS schools in the USA Today’s financial database, Kentucky ranked 17th in overall revenue in 2016-17 and fell into the 86th percentile overall (which, projected for 130 teams, puts you around 18th or so).

If we simply average these rankings together, we get an expected ranking in the No. 42-47 range. If we ignore the context-heavy financial data, we end up in the mid-50s to mid-60s. Either way, this suggests modern Kentucky should usually be an above-average program.

Over the last four seasons (omitting his Year Zero season in 2013), Stoops’ UK has an average S&P+ ranking of 75.5 out of about 130 teams, or usually below average.

And his Wildcats have fallen well short of the SEC average, even over the last couple of seasons, when the league average fell.

Stoops’ tenure has been one of fits and starts. Since the start of 2014, they’ve gone 5-1, then 0-6, then 4-1, then 1-8, then 5-1, then 2-3, then 5-1, then 2-5. They’ve scored rare victories over rivals (Louisville in 2016, Tennessee in 2017), and they’ve managed two bowl bids in a row, which isn’t exactly common. But they were outscored overall in both seasons and needed a probably unsustainable 8-4 record in one-possession finishes to get above .500 in both years.

S&P+ basically saw 2017 UK as a team of 5-7 quality that got lucky. The Wildcats weren’t awful at much, but they only did two things truly well; they leveraged the field (thanks in part to awesome special teams), and they rushed the passer well on passing downs. That can get you pretty far, but the Wildcats had little margin for error — they won one game by more than 11 points and lost three by at least 27.

Still. Bowling each year at UK is something, and S&P+ gives the Wildcats basically a 50-50 chance of doing it again in 2018. And if a decent new QB emerges and star running back Benny Snell, Jr., rediscovers his 2016 form after a bit of a sophomore slump, it’s not hard to see them riding that and a defense loaded with seniors to another seven-win season or so.

I guess that’s good enough?

Offense

2017 Kentucky offensive radar

Stephen Johnson bailed Kentucky out. The Rancho Cucamonga (Cal.) product, who made it to Lexington by way of the College of the Desert and Grambling State, was a recruiting afterthought, a low-three-star brought to town just in case something happened to blue-chipper Drew Barker.

Something did happen to Barker: he didn’t work out. The bellcow of Stoops’ recruiting efforts completed just 50 percent of his passes with five touchdowns to seven interceptions over parts of three seasons, and he was bombing early in 2016 when he injured his back and gave Stoops and offensive coordinator Eddie Gran an out. They inserted Johnson next to a freshman Snell, and the Wildcats discovered a physical, exciting, run-heavy identity that they rode to seven wins.

Johnson kept the starting job in 2017, took a ton of hits, and gutted out 2,305 passing yards and 537 non-sack rushing yards. He was the primary QB for each of UK’s 14 wins over the last two years. But he graduated, and Barker announced he was giving up football in January.

The most likely starter is evidently 6’4 sophomore Gunnar Hoak, but Stoops brought in another insurance policy in Oregon-by-way-of-JUCO transfer Terry Wilson. Redshirt freshman Danny Clark appears to be in third place.

Gran’s background was far more pass-heavy before Johnson took over. We’ll see if the system changes, but with Snell in the backfield, it’s not like the Wildcats are going to suddenly turn into Washington State.

NCAA Football: Music Bowl-Kentucky vs Northwestern
Benny Snell Jr.
Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Snell was a revelation in 2016. After sitting out the first two games, Snell rushed for at least 94 yards in six of his first nine games and finished his freshman year with 1,091 yards at 5.9 per carry. He wasn’t bad in 2017, but despite continuity up front, he struggled to find his rhythm. He averaged only 4.1 yards per carry through UK’s first seven games.

From there, though, he looked like Snell again. He averaged 155 yards per game and 6.3 yards per carry through the end of the regular season before getting just six carries before an odd ejection in the bowl loss to Northwestern.

That version of Snell is the best gift a new QB can have. And he’ll be behind a line that features five players (including former four-star recruits Landon Young and Drake Jackson) who have each started at least seven games. USC transfer E.J. Price, another former four-star, could be in the rotation, too, and Stoops just signed a couple more four-star freshmen.

Opponents will have to game plan for a heavy dose of Snell. That can open up opportunities in the passing game.

NCAA Football: Mississippi at Kentucky
Tavin Richardson
Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

The receiving corps hasn’t proved enough but has potential. Junior Tavin Richardson returns after serving as Johnson’s No. 2 target, and senior Dorian Baker is back after missing 2017 with an ankle injury. Baker was injured for half of 2016 and inconsistent in the other half, catching just 14 of 36 passes. But he averaged 15 yards per reception, and he flashed explosiveness in catching three balls for 73 yards and two scores in the final two games.

Four-star sophomore Lynn Bowden wasn’t a difference-maker, but he did produce 13 catches for 207 yards over a six-game span in the middle. Plus, tight end C.J. Conrad caught nine balls for 195 yards in the first four games before succumbing to injury.

With good health, this could be a really nice quartet. But if any of them get hurt (and someone usually does), the pool of known quantities dries up. Stoops signed six freshman WRs and TEs, but you don’t want to count on them.

Defense

2017 Kentucky defensive radar

Two years into the Stoops era, it looked like the former Florida State defensive coordinator was building a juggernaut. The Wildcats surged to 50th in Def. S&P+ in his second season thanks to an exciting, aggressive front seven. But when players like ends Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith graduated, a void opened. And each year, the Wildcats slip further from the top 50 — 68th in 2015, 86th in 2016, 97th in 2017.

Matt House’s first season as coordinator established an identity, but that was about it. UK was very much a bend-don’t-break defense, ranking a decent 50th in IsoPPP (which measures the magnitude of opponents’ successful plays) and an extremely not-decent 110th in success rate (108th rushing, 109th passing). They did rush the passer well on passing downs, but that would have been more of an asset had they forced passing downs — they were a horrid 121st in standard-downs success rate.

You couldn’t blame youth or injury for many of the issues, at least outside of the line. The linebacking corps was led by two juniors and a senior, and the secondary was led by five juniors and a senior.

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Kentucky
Josh Allen
Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

The good news is that those two units are even more experienced this time. But that only matters if accompanied by more efficiency.

Four players made nearly half of UK’s havoc plays (tackles for loss, passes defensed, forced fumbles), and three of them return. Strong side linebacker Josh Allen (16.5 havoc plays, including seven sacks) is back to lead the passing downs attack, though he’ll need a new QB harrassing mate with Denzil Ware (14.5 havoc plays, 6.5 sacks) gone. Help in that regard could come from the sophomore class — end Joshua Paschal made 3.5 of his 13 tackles behind the line, and linebacker Boogie Watson had two TFLs among his six tackles. Those are good ratios.

In the back, UK’s two best havoc guys return, too. Safety Mike Edwards and cornerback Derrick Baity combined for 4.5 TFLs, six INTs, and 16 pass breakups. Three other heavy senior contributors are back, too: safety Darius West and corners Lonnie Johnson and Chris Westry. Two other safeties (junior Jordan Griffin and sophomore Davonte Robinson) also acquitted themselves reasonably well last year. With all these pieces, the Wildcats should again create serious problems on passing downs.

Still, you have to force PDs first. UK won’t be any worse at that, but we’ll see how much the numbers can improve. The top four line tacklers after Ware — Paschal, senior Adrian Middleton, and juniors Calvin Taylor Jr. and T.J. Carter — are back, and weakside linebacker Jordan Jones is back opposite Allen. Stoops hasn’t had nearly as many big recruiting wins in the front seven as in other areas, but there’s experience here.

NCAA Football: Eastern Kentucky at Kentucky
Mike Edwards (7) and Davonte Robinson (9)
Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

It’s hard to win the field position battle when you’re dreadfully inefficient on defense, but UK pulled it off thanks to magnificent special teams. The Wildcats ranked 19th in Special Teams S&P+ — eighth in punt return efficiency, 12th in FG efficiency, and top-50 in punting and kick returns.

Of course, punt returner Charles Walker, kicker Austin MacGinnis, and punter Matt Panton are all gone.

Yeah, the defense better improve.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep Central Michigan 116 16.1 82%
8-Sep at Florida 32 -8.9 30%
15-Sep Murray State NR 43.8 99%
22-Sep Mississippi State 14 -11.4 26%
29-Sep South Carolina 35 -2.9 43%
6-Oct at Texas A&M 24 -11.7 25%
20-Oct Vanderbilt 75 5.3 62%
27-Oct at Missouri 30 -9.6 29%
3-Nov Georgia 6 -17.8 15%
10-Nov at Tennessee 79 0.9 52%
17-Nov Middle Tennessee 83 7.2 66%
24-Nov at Louisville 29 -10.0 28%
Projected S&P+ Rk 64
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 79 / 50
Projected wins 5.6
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -1.7 (78)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 29 / 30
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 3 / 0.8
2017 TO Luck/Game +0.8
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 68% (47%, 89%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 5.2 (1.8)

Kentucky has a strangely stratified schedule in 2018. The Wildcats play seven teams that are projected 35th or better in S&P+, and they play five projected 75th or worse, with none in between. UK is projected 64th in S&P+, but anything between about 45th and 70th isn’t going to change the outlook much; you’re just looking to extend your bowl streak by winning the games against inferior teams and picking off an upset.

On one hand, you’re looking for some long-term answers, and you might find them at QB, WR, and defensive line. On the other, the defensive back seven is extremely senior-heavy, and this could be Snell’s last year before the NFL draft. You want to feel like you’re building toward something, but the young QB could emerge just as his best weapon leaves and his defense starts over.

Stoops has won between five and seven games for four straight years. This year’s schedule is projected to produce an average of 5.6, and as UK is stuck between win-now and building for the future, we can guess that next year’s projection might be similar.

This is good enough, I guess?

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