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2011 Season Preview: Ceilings And The Kentucky Wildcats

Kentucky has won more than eight games in a season just three times in their history, and they probably won't do so in 2011 with a team in transition either. Joker Phillips appears to be a good young coach, but exactly what should be expected of him in Lexington?

LEXINGTON KY - SEPTEMBER 18: La 'Rod King #16 of the Kentucky Wildcats reaches for extra yards during the game against the Akron Zips at Commonwealth Stadium on September 18 2010 in Lexington Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
LEXINGTON KY - SEPTEMBER 18: La 'Rod King #16 of the Kentucky Wildcats reaches for extra yards during the game against the Akron Zips at Commonwealth Stadium on September 18 2010 in Lexington Kentucky. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom. And as always, if you don't like numbers, just skip to the words.

In 2010, an average of 66,000 Kentucky alums/students/fans visited Commonwealth Stadium for UK home games. Though not Tennessee numbers (or Alabama ... or LSU...) by any means, it was still good for the 25th-highest average in the country, just ahead of programs like Missouri, UCLA and Oregon. The Wildcats seem to have a reasonably sized fanbase, they have SEC money ... and they have won more than eight games in a season just twice since 1950 and three times ever. Exactly why is that?

Now, I'm not completely naive in asking that. Kentucky is a basketball school and always has been. Bear Bryant griped and complained about it when he was head coach in the early-1950s, then, in a Sports Illustrated piece a decade or so later, confirmed that was the major reason for his departure to Texas A&M.

I guess, to be perfectly honest about it, that was the crux of the matter, me and Coach Rupp. If Rupp had retired as basketball coach when they said he was going to I'd probably still be at Kentucky. The trouble was we were too much alike, and he wanted basketball No. 1 and I wanted football No. 1. In an environment like that one or the other has to go. ...

Well, I tried to resign in '52, after Kentucky had that basketball scandal, and go to Arkansas, but they flat out wouldn't release me. I was afraid the scandal would hurt our football program. Some people in Arkansas thought I was just using them to get a better deal, but that's not true. A year later Bernie Shively and I were going down to the conference meeting at Birmingham, and when we changed planes in Louisville I picked up a paper, and there it was. Rupp was not retiring at all and Dr. Donovan was saying how pleased he was. That did it. I made up my mind to go. I'd been led to believe Adolph was going to retire, and I'm glad now he didn't, he's meant so much to basketball. Well, the only offer I had open then was from Texas A&M, and I took it.

Still, as Florida proved in the middle of the last decade, you can win big at both football and basketball even if you still prefer one to the other. Kentucky's got money, fans and money, and while the state of Kentucky is not, in and of itself, as strong a recruiting base as others in the SEC ... come on. Twelve winning seasons in 45 years? Zero BCS bowls in 60 years? About 116 straight losses to Tennessee?

Instead of dwelling on the past, however, the question for the future is simple: is Joker Phillips' ceiling at Kentucky any different than anybody else's? Before he retired in 2009, Rich Brooks led the Wildcats to four consecutive winning seasons, the first time they pulled that off since 1953-56. Phillips kept the bowl eligibility train rolling despite a young defense in 2010, but his ceiling is still very much undefined.

Then again, looking at UK's history, his ceiling might actually be very well-defined.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 6-7 | Adj. Record: 5-8 | Final F/+ Rk**: 47
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
4-Sep Louisville 23-16 W 40.8 - 12.5 W
11-Sep Western Kentucky 63-28 W 44.7 - 33.2 W
18-Sep Akron 47-10 W 44.9 - 18.2 W
25-Sep Florida 14-48 L 29.8 - 39.1 L
2-Oct Ole Miss 35-42 L 27.1 - 32.7 L
9-Oct Auburn 34-37 L 37.4 - 28.8 W
16-Oct South Carolina 31-28 W 33.5 - 35.4 L
23-Oct Georgia 31-44 L 26.3 - 34.9 L
30-Oct Mississippi State 17-24 L 16.5 - 25.5 L
6-Nov Charleston Southern
49-21 W 34.7 - 36.8 L
13-Nov Vanderbilt 38-20 W 43.4 - 32.4 W
27-Nov Tennessee 14-24 L 24.5 - 36.0 L
8-Jan Pittsburgh 10-27 L 29.1 - 34.6 L
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 31.2 34 28.4 72
Adj. Points Per Game 33.3 20 30.8 90

Despite the ho-hum record, Kentucky was an interesting team to watch, primarily because of their unique skill position talent. Their offense played at an above-average level in 10 of 13 games, but an extremely young defense faded after a promising start, then stabilized (and not in a good way) down the stretch.

Kentucky Defense, First Three Games: 21.3 Adj. PPG Allowed
Kentucky Defense, Next Five Games: 34.2 Adj. PPG Allowed
Kentucky Defense, Final Five Games: 33.1 Adj. PPG Allowed

In all, the defense had very little standard deviation after the first three weeks; aside from a decent showing against Mississippi State, the Wildcats' defense was rather consistently bad. Stretch-run wins over Charleston Southern and a beaten-down Vanderbilt team made them bowl eligible, but there was little to like about their final ten games of the year. Despite playing in the SEC, their actual record was actually better than what their level of play earned.

In 2011, the script gets flipped -- quite a bit of interesting skill position talent leaves, but the defense is nothing if not experienced. Maybe not good, but definitely experienced.


Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
OVERALL 30 23 36
RUSHING 31 32 33 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 33 14 46 43
Standard Downs 25 29 26 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 30 24 32 21
Redzone 79 70 81
Q1 Rk 40 1st Down Rk 19
Q2 Rk 35 2nd Down Rk 55
Q3 Rk 9 3rd Down Rk 9
Q4 Rk 21

Vanderbilt and Kentucky might not have the most high-flying, attention-grabbing football series in the country, but when they meet in Nashville on November 12, there will be one thing to keep your interest: you might not have any idea which players are running backs and which are receivers. New Vandy coach James Franklin headed up the Maryland offense last year, and both the Terps and Kentucky spent most of last year blurring the lines between positions. Kentucky's was basically an efficiency-based passing attack, but they were creative in how they went about it. Randall Cobb had 1,017 receiving yards and 424 rushing yards. Derrick Locke had 887 rushing yards and 318 receiving yards. Backup "running backs" Donald Russell and Raymond Sanders combined for 547 rushing yards and 248 receiving yards. The Wildcats featured, basically, six skill position athletes in their attack last year, but who did how much of what was not determined by typical positional definitions.

There's no question who the alpha dog was, however. Cobb (12.1 yards per catch, 69% catch rate; 7.7 yards per carry, +15.1 Adj. POE) was outstanding in his catch-or-run role, and he took some abuse along the way. Including targets, kick/punt returns and ten pass attempts out of the accurately-named-for-once Wildcat formation, Kentucky tried to get the ball into Cobb's hands 246 times in 13 games last year. Maybe that isn't a lot if you are a big Wisconsin running back, but it's a lot for just about everybody else.

Cobb was an NFL early entry, landing with the Green Bay Packers at the end of the second round; both he and underrated complement Chris Matthews (925 yards, 15.2 per catch, 62% catch rate) are gone, leaving behind La'Rod King (478 yards, 13.3 per catch, 68% catch), Matt Roark (170 yards, 14.2 per catch, 80% catch) and a host of newcomers to catch passes from likely starting quarterback Morgan Newton. King showed vast potential in a supporting role; we'll see how that translates to a much higher target rate in 2011.

Locke (887 rushing yards, 5.3 per carry, +3.1 Adj. POE) is also gone; Sanders (254 yards, 3.7 per carry, -4.2 Adj. POE as a freshman) now takes the lead in the backfield.

Other tidbits:

  • Though Kentucky's skill position depth took a significant hit with the departures of Cobb, Matthews, Locke and starting quarterback Mike Hartline (3,178 yards, 7.8 per pass, 66% completion rate, 23 TD, 9 INT), a stark transition here could be eased by the presence of a stellar offensive line. Four starters, and eight members of the two-deep return to action, including second-team all-conference guard Larry Warford. They were decent in run-blocking and great in pass protection, and they should be even better in 2011. And if they could shore up their blocking in the red zone, where UK very much failed to maximize their trips in 2010, that could result in more touchdowns and fewer field goals.
  • Kentucky's offense puts a lot of pressure on a quarterback to make plays -- they run quite a bit on standard downs, but they put the ball in the air much higher than the national average on passing downs, meaning one could have expected Hartline's completion percentage to be much lower than it was (since passing on passing downs is a much lower-percentage proposition). Newton (265 yards, 6.2 per pass, 58% completion rate) got himself a little bit of experience last year, but he's got bigger shoes to fill than some might think. It won't help that Cobb and Matthews combined for 51% of their team's targets last year, 18th-highest in the country. That is a lot of passes going to new targets, and from a new quarterback, in 2011.


Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
OVERALL 72 87 67
RUSHING 94 97 83 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 53 47 56 61
Standard Downs 98 102 81 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 56 58 55 103
Redzone 107 110 105
Q1 Rk 94 1st Down Rk 97
Q2 Rk 66 2nd Down Rk 59
Q3 Rk 83 3rd Down Rk 64
Q4 Rk 94

Heading into the 2010 season, Kentucky had to replace six starters, three in the secondary and three in the front seven. But while the pass defense improved from 68th in Def. Passing S&P+ to 53rd (despite the total lack of a pass rush), the run defense fell apart in the absence of tackle Corey Peters and linebacker Micah Johnson. Powered by a significant drop in efficiency (52nd to 97th in Success Rate+), the Wildcats' run defense faded from 60th in Def. Rushing S&P+ to 94th.

UK was a sieve on standard downs, failing to either stop the run or get to the quarterback, and believe it or not (ahem), that was a bit of a hindrance. Perhaps not by choice, the Wildcats attempted the bend-don't-break routine, but since they were only average on passing downs and atrocious in the red zone, it was more like bend-then-break.

The good news, I guess, is that just about everybody returns. The Wildcats get back nine starters, including most everybody who did anything good in 2010. The two "starters" lost (end DeQuin Evans, tackle Ricky Lumpkin) did not produce any more than their backups at their respective positions, so that almost doesn't count. In the end, the biggest problem heading into 2011 is that there doesn't appear to be much new blood; most of the Wildcats' biggest recruits in 2011 play on the offensive side of the ball. The biggest change actually happens on the sideline, where former Notre Dame defensive coordinator (among other things) Rick Minter slides into the picture as co-coordinator with Steve Brown. I don't know how much improvement can be expected in one season, but a return to mediocre 2009 levels would be a start.

Other tidbits:

  • If a Wildcat was making a play in 2010, it was probably linebacker Danny Travathan (114.5 tackles, 16.0 TFL/sacks, 4 FF, 3 PBU), who had as many tackles for loss as UK's top four returning linemen combined. He was a beast from the weakside, but Kentucky will need a bit more from the rest of the LB corps. That UK ranked 61st in Adj. Line Yards but 94th in overall Rushing S&P+ suggests that the linebackers were part of the problem against the run, so Ridge Wilson (26.0 tackles, 3.0 TFL/sacks, 2 PBU) and Ronnie Sneed (47.0 tackles, 4.0 TFL/sacks) need to raise their games.
  • The secondary really was pretty strong, and everybody's back. Martavius Neloms (47.5 tackles, 5.5 TFL/sacks, 2 PBU) is an aggressive cornerback, as are his counterparts at the position, Randall Burden, Anthony Mosley and sophomore Jerrell Priester. Due perhaps to the lack of production from the front seven, UK attacked with their corners a lot in 2010, and it was one of the few successful aspects of the defense. Safeties Winston Guy (81.0 tackles, 4.0 TFL/sacks, 3 INT, 2 PBU) and Mychal Bailey (51.0 tackles, 2 INT, 2 PBU) were more reactive than aggressive, but they kind of had to be.

Kentucky's 2010 Season Set to Music

We'll go with the entire Willie Cobbs catalog. (Cobbs? Get it?) Particularly "You Don't Love Me."

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit


Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in this summer's Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 46
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 53
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** -4 / -0.0
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 15 (6, 9)
Yds/Pt Margin***** +1.2

The historical precedent at Kentucky is not particularly high, so five straight bowls is nothing to scoff at for the Wildcats. Games against Western Kentucky (in ... Nashville?), Central Michigan and Jacksonville State should get them halfway to a sixth straight, but the rest will depend on, obviously, how much the defense can rebound and how much the offense can avoid regression. A rebound in both fumbles luck and YPP margin (both of which were poor in 2010) will help, but only so much.

With a good offensive line and at least marginal experience at the skill positions, I don't see too significant a drop-off on the offensive side of the ball, but clearly the defense is going to be a hindrance here. UK's recruiting rankings don't really hold up in the SEC, and if Joker Phillips has any chance of taking Kentucky to a higher level, it is going to be a slow go. Kentucky could be interesting and somewhat entertaining in 2011, but despite an SEC East in transition, the Wildcats' ceiling should still be around 7-5.




* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

***** Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.