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Kentucky Wildcats – Contender or Pretender?

When you think about SEC football, the Kentucky Wildcats typically don’t come up in the discussion. For the most part Kentucky football is thought of as an SEC doormat. Sure they can get bowl eligible with 6-7 wins, but they are never a factor in the SEC with college football giants Florida, Tennessee & Georgia residing in the same division. Like their border state Indiana, Kentucky is synonymous with the hardwood & not the gridiron.

However, the first quarter of the 2010 college football season has proved quite interesting for those concerned with UK football. I’ve been tracking BCS Championship criteria this season and Kentucky has very surprising results. You can find my discussion of the BCS Championship criteria here to get a better understanding of what I’m going to explain.

To be fair, Kentucky hasn’t played anyone. They are 3-0 with wins coming against Western Kentucky, Louisville & Akron. Those are potentially 3 of the worst teams in all the FBS, but give the Cats credit in that they haven’t reached into the FCS. Kentucky has played legitimate, albeit horrible, division one opponents. They also played Louisville on the road which looks a lot better now that Louisville gave Oregon St. all the Beavers can handle.

The interesting part about Kentucky is the way in which they’ve been winning. The 3-0 isn’t as important as HOW they got to be 3-0. According to the 26 BCS Championship criteria, Kentucky is meeting 22 of the 26 requirements which makes them a borderline BCS Championship contender! The only other SEC squad to exceed 22 matches is Alabama which meets 23 of the 26 criteria, just one more than Kentucky.

CRITERIA KENTUCKY DOESN’T MEET

1. Points Allowed per Game (18ppg)
2. Yards per Carry Allowed (4.4ypc)
3. Rushing Yards per Game Allowed (148)
4. Expected Rushing TDs Allowed (13)

From a macro standpoint what is this telling us? It’s essentially saying that Kentucky rush defense is suspect. Louisville & Western Kentucky rank within the top 50% of rushing teams in the FBS, but they are borderline top-50% so it isn’t like Kentucky has faced dominant runners thus far. Akron is one of the worst rushing teams in college football, being the bottom 17% of all rushing teams.

The criteria for points allowed per game is 16. Kentucky barely misses, but the rushing limits are a bit more indicative of where Kentucky falls. The limit for rushing yards per carry allowed is 3.4 while the limit for rushing yards per game allowed is 109. Kentucky misses these by a wide margin. The Wildcats are close on expected rushing TD allowed as the limit is 9, but the YPC allowed & the Rushing Yards/G allowed is very telling.

MOVING FORWARD

Here are Kentucky’s future opponents & how they rank in rushing yards per game:

@ Florida: #52
@ Mississippi: #47
Auburn: #12
South Carolina: #33
Georgia: #85
@ Mississippi St.: #63
Charleston Southern: N/A
Vanderbilt: #55
@ Tennessee: #42

Oddly enough, Kentucky doesn’t face any dominant rushing teams outside of Auburn. Florida & South Carolina are misleading too because of Jeff Demps & Kenny Lattimore respectively. You have to think that if I can see that Kentucky’s rush defense is suspect that Urban Meyer & Steve Spurrier can see the same things & know that pounding their outstanding running backs is the best way to go about hammering Kentucky. Still, I think you have to give Kentucky a good sized shot at beating Georgia given how well UK’s done in pass defense & how poor Georgia is running the football. Put the game in Lexington & all of a sudden Kentucky looks like they have a fantastic shot at the upset. From this perspective it looks like Kentucky could actually get to 9-3 & finish 3rd in the SEC East behind Florida & South Carolina.

Meeting the Criteria: Barely or Convincingly?

There is a thin line between meeting the criteria & not meeting the criteria if a team’s statistical averages are right at the cut off line. We see this twice in the categories Kentucky misses. Thus you could argue that Kentucky is on the verge of meeting 24 of the 26 required BCS Championship criteria. However, how many criteria that they meet currently are borderline cases?

Expected Rushing Attempts: 516 (the floor is 476)
Expected Passing TDs: 26 (the floor is 22)
Yards per Play Allowed: 4.5 (the floor is 4.5)
Passing Yards Allowed/Completion: 11.8 (the floor is 11.8)

There are only 4 categories in which Kentucky is on the borderline of not meeting minimum requirements. Yards per Play Allowed is somewhat representative of Kentucky’s rush defense, but UK’s passing yards per completion allowed plays a role as well. Kentucky has been outstanding thus far in their pass defense by preventing completions, but when they do give up a completion it stings a bit more than usual.

The one aspect of Kentucky “borderline” criteria that bothers me a bit is their expected rushing attempts. They are currently 40 carries ahead of the pace assuming they play 13 games which means Kentucky is bowl eligible. However, they will need to run the ball at least 28 times against Florida this upcoming week in order to maintain that sort of pace. I think they’ll accomplish this, but my guess is that Florida will go up early on the Wildcats in Gainesville & force Kentucky into more of a passing team to try & stay in the game.

It’s certainly easy to say running the football while stopping the run is a recipe for success, but it’s even more true in the case of Kentucky. A more telling sign potentially for Kentucky is looking at their opponents rush defense ranking to see if UK has a shot to use ball control in order to win. Here are the rankings of their opponents when it comes to rush defense:

@Florida: #24
@Mississippi: #59
Auburn: #40
South Carolina: #6
Georgia: #21
@Mississippi St.: #50
Charleston Southern: N/A
Vanderbilt: #104
@Tennessee: #65

From this perspective you can sort of lump South Carolina in with Auburn regarding teams Kentucky has virtually not shot at beating. Although Florida & Georgia do have top-25 rush defenses, Kentucky might be able to beat them. They are long shots to be certain, but Florida has had massive problems on offense thus far & it’s at least arguable that Kentucky could capitalize on those mistakes. Florida has benefited from being +7 in turnover margin which has helped them attain a 3-0 record while not playing well. Kentucky is 2nd in the SEC in this category at +4. According to BCS criteria, Georgia has had a great rush defense, but every other aspect of their game has been terrible. Kentucky should be able to exploit this.

How Will It Play Out?

Playing in Gainesville this week will tell us a lot about Kentucky in my opinion. Vegas has UK as 14-point dogs. That’s not too bad. Making adjustments would put UK as 8-point dogs if the game were in Lexington so the teams are closer than you’d normally think they would be. If they hang tight with Florida then I don’t think it’s completely out of the realm of possibility that Kentucky finishes 8-4/9-3. If Kentucky gets luck & beats the Gators then UK has a legit shot at 9-3/10-2! If Florida blows them out, then I think it’s safe to say that the early 3 games were more indicative of Kentucky taking advantage of weak opponents than any real measure of Kentucky football prowess.

It’s certainly an interesting story that isn’t getting much play in the national media. A deep look into the statistics show that Kentucky is playing outstanding football. We just have to see whether it’s real or not.

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September 22, 2010 - Posted by | Kentucky, Statistics

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