By KEITH PEEL
It’s time for a mid-year football review. With the Kentucky Wildcats spending a bye week at home and sitting on a 5-1 overall record it seemed like the time was ripe for a look back at where some of UK’s opponents are after their losses to Kentucky and also what we might be able to expect going forward based on the future SEC schedule along with two statistics that I believe are critical to predict future success for this Kentucky football team.
Sitting at 3-1 in the SEC and tied for second in the East Division with Florida and one game ahead of South Carolina, UK football finds itself in a very good position if they continue to do what they do best — run the ball effectively and play lock down defense for the entire game.
They still have games at home with Vanderbilt and No. 2 Georgia and road games with Missouri and Tennessee. The Wildcats really need to continue to dominate time of possession through their grind it out offense to have any shot at competing with Georgia for the SEC East title.
So let’s look at the games Georgia has left on its schedule. The Bulldogs have LSU and UK on the road, Florida at Jacksonville and Auburn at home. All of those teams are ranked 21st or better in the college football polls. That leaves Georgia with a tough four week stretch to finish the SEC season.
Since Kentucky and Georgia have had only South Carolina as a common opponent so far it is difficult to judge how UK will match up with the Bulldogs the first week of November but knowing that UK has already beaten a ranked 4-1 Florida team, a ranked 4-2 Mississippi State and 3-2 South Carolina, it would appear that UK should have a shot at defeating Georgia if they play like they did against Mississippi State and Florida.
That would mean they need to grind out the run game and limit Georgia’s ability to move the ball by getting stops on third down and getting off the field. If Kentucky has a similar breakdown in the offensive run game against Georgia that it had against Texas A&M the Cats will find themselves with a similar result — a loss to the Bulldogs.
So what about those key statistics? I thought you’d never ask. Here are the two statistics that I believe are critical for Kentucky football’s future success. They are opponent’s rushing defense and Kentucky’s ability to limit opponent’s third down conversions.
Here’s why. If UK is going to continue to win games they must control the ball through time of possession. They play their best when they make long eight minute drives that force their opponents to play defense for a good portion of the game and allows UK’s offense to wear the opposing defense down in the fourth quarter to finish the game. That’s the game plan that Texas A&M used so effectively against the Cats last week. The Aggies dominated time of position, won the rushing battle and wore out the UK defense in the second half.
Those two statistics — opponent’s rushing defense and UK’s defense against third down conversions — in my opinion provide some understanding of how successful Kentucky could be against future opponents.
So for the bad news first. UK currently ranks 106th in the nation for limiting third down conversions at 43 percent. Going forward if the defense can reduce third down conversions it will allow the offense more opportunities on the increased number of snaps to control the clock and wear down the opponent’s defense. By the way the average defensive third down conversion percentage of the teams left on UK’s schedule is 35 percent. So it looks like the Wildcats have their work cut out for them on defense just to match their future opponents ability to get off the field on third down.
The other statistic — opponent’s defensive rank against the run — pretty well predicts if Kentucky will be able to run the ball well In their wins against Florida, South Carolina and Mississippi State, only Mississippi State had a highly ranked rushing defense — 21st in the nation. South Carolina and Florida ranked 99th and 81st respectively. And as further evidence Texas A&M ranks fourth in rushing defense and was able to stonewall Benny Snell and Company.
Now for more bad news. Georgia and Missouri – both future opponents – rank 20th and 15th respectively in rushing defense. That means like their previous game against Mississippi State — a team ranked 21st in rushing defense — where UK gained 265 yards on the ground compared to 56 for Mississippi State, Kentucky will have to have dominate play at the point of attack to win both those games. Based on their future opponents’ play so far this year the Wildcat offensive and defensive lines will have to win a lot more one-on-one battles against Missouri and Georgia than they did against Texas A&M to get the win.
Fortunately for UK their other two opponents’ defenses — Vanderbilt and Tennessee — don’t rank nearly as high against the run at 74th and 65th respectively.
So in my opinion what this means is that UK will control the outcome of each game for UK. If the Cats execute on both lines of scrimmage — they have the talent to do it — they can continue to employ their ground-and-pound offense and disciplined defensive approach to keep the score low and win the game in the third and fourth quarter.
But if they get key penalties at critical times, have breakdowns that cause them to get behind the chains and continue to let teams convert third downs at a 43 percent clip they will struggle down the stretch against any of the four SEC teams left on their schedule.
They have two weeks to correct errors and heal up some injured players before they go back into the grind against Vanderbilt. As the season starts to wear on all SEC teams the Wildcat strategy of pounding the ball on offense should become more effective, especially against teams like Vanderbilt, Tennessee and Missouri that have limited depth.
With six games to go the Wildcats have the opportunity to write their names in the UK Football record book by finishing strong and they also have the opportunity to limp to the finish line like some previous teams in the past. Based on the toughness and heart that this team has shown it would be surprising if they have another poor showing like they did against Texas A&M.
Humility is a hard teacher and it seems like the Wildcats learned a difficult lesson at Texas A&M in a game they could have very easily won. Now is the time for less talk and more execution because after all, talk is cheap if you don’t back it up.