By RICHARD CHEEKS, Contributing Writer
For Kentucky Fans, no annual rivalry carries the same impact or importance as the annual intrastate war between the Cats and Cards. This Saturday, the 2019 edition of the football kind occurs at Kroger field. Both teams will enter this game bowl eligible. The Cats will put their 6-5 record on the line against the Cards’ 7-4 record, and the winner of this game bragging rights for the next year and, a much better bowl opportunity. As is always the case, a lot is riding on this game, as it should be.
Many Cat fans are disappointed that their Cats reach this season finale with only 6 wins after giving away what appeared to be a win over Florida in game 3, and with the injuries to Terry Wilson and then Sawyer Smith, opportunities to secure at least one more win at either Mississippi State or South Carolina were lost. Some argue this team could be, in fact would be entering this final game with at least 8 wins, if not 9 or 10 wins instead of the 6. Some of the same fans are not well pleased by the offense that this team has played since Lynn Bowden assumed the reigns at Quarterback for the Arkansas game.
This is a good time to examine the impact that the quarterbacking situation for the Cats has impacted the offense, and examine the development of the defense through the season. For this comparison, I have separated the first 11 games into two segments: Games 1-5 and Games 6-11.
The average strength of opponents for the first 5 games was greater than the average strength of the last 6 opponents. Toledo and Eastern Michigan are better football teams than Vanderbilt or Tennessee Martin. Florida, Mississippi State and South Carolina are stronger than Tennessee, Arkansas and Missouri. The wildcard in the assessment of overall strength of opponents for the first 5 games against the last 6 games is Georgia, the strongest opponent on this year’s schedule. However, average strength of the first five opponents is greater than the strength of the final six opponents.
The Cats finished the first 5 games 2-3 while it has traversed the final 6 games 4-2. The table below provides a direct comparison of scoring, strength of opponents, and the resulting raw and adjusted efficiencies.
Parameter All Games Games 1-5 Games 6-11
Opponent Strength 1.718 1.963 1.544
Points Per Game 24.6 23.4 25.7
Points Allowed Per Game 18.9 24.4 14.3
Raw Offensive Efficiency 2.219 1.983 2.444
Raw Defensive Efficiency 1.704 2.068 1.365
Raw Net Efficiency 0.516 -0.085 1.079
Adjusted Offensive Efficiency 3.079 2.964 3.216
Adjusted Defensive Efficiency 0.844 1.086 0.593
Adjusted Net Efficiency 2.234 1.878 2.623
While there has been a net improvement on the offensive side of the ball (0.252 ppp), there has been a much more significant improvement on the defensive side of the ball over the last 6 games (0.493 ppp). The Adjusted Net Efficiency of the team was 1.878 ppp during the first 5 games and rose to 2.623 ppp over the last 6 games. The ANE value for the last 6 games is higher than the ANE value posted last season during the 10-3 season. The ANE value (2.623 ppp) over the last 6 games is better than every opponent on the 2019 football schedule except Florida and Georgia, and as noted previously, many fans believe that Kentucky had the Gators beaten, and let it slip away.
On the offensive side of the ball, the last 6 games has been a run oriented offense. The team has averaged over carries per game, up from 35 attempts over the first 5 games, but the team only threw the ball 11.5 times per game, down from just under 35 pass attempts during the first 5 games. Total yardage has been about the same (378 vs 382 yards per game), but under the redefined rush-oriented offense, the average rushing yardage per game increased from 165 yards to over 325 yards. The passing yardage dropped from 213 yards to about 56 yards per game. The game tempo dropped from 12 possessions per game to only 10.5 possessions per game, which means the average yardage per possession increased. These are the primary changes that produced the improved adjusted offensive efficiency.
On the defensive side of the ball, the improvements have been substantial, with the adjusted defensive efficiency falling from 1.086 ppp for the first 5 games to only 0.593 ppp for the final 6 games. This defensive improvement occurs in stronger defense against the run and the pass. Against the run, the Cats’ defense only allowed 3.9 yards per carry over the last 6 games, down from 5.0 yards per carry for the first 5 games, and the average ground yards allowed dropped from about 171 yards per game (1st five) to only 120 yards per game over the last 6 games. Through the air, the Kentucky defense reduced the opponent completion percentage from over 62% during the fist 5 games to only 53% over the last 6 games, and the air yardage allowed also dropped from about 225 yards to only 140 yards. Total yards allowed dropped from 396 yards per game to only 260 yards per game. These are the primary changes that produced the improved adjusted defensive efficiency.
Louisville, as noted at the top, brings an impressive 7-4 record into this final game. There is no question that Louisville has regained much of the swagger that it lost during the prior season or two under its new head coach. There is also no question that this year’s battle of the bluegrass will not likely be a one sided affair in either direction. The Cards have an offense that puts points on the board, averaging 34.5 points per game. However, the Cards’ defense does not match their offensive prowess, allowing almost 33 points per game. As such, the Cards’ raw offensive efficiency is an impressive 2.76 ppp but its raw defensive efficiency is an embarrassing 2.63 ppp. The Cards have allowed opponents to score 35, 38, 35, 39, 59, 45, 52, and 34 points in 8 of their 11 games. The exceptions occurred against EKU, WKU, and Virginia, all at home. When the strength of the Cards’ schedule is applied to the raw efficiency, the Cards posted adjusted efficiencies of 3.654 ppp on offense and 1.728 ppp on defense, for an ANE of 1.93 ppp.
The ANE analysis indicates a UK advantage of 5 points, 30-25 based on the season long ANE values for each team with the home field advantage that Kroger Field usually provides. If the UK ANE that spans the last 6 games is used in this analysis, the projected margin increased from 5 points to 9 1/2 points.
Are the Cats ready to face Louisville? I believe they are.