Did the Kentucky Offense Improve with Liam Coen in 2023?

On3 imageby:Nick Roush11/30/23

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Liam Coen Discusses Kentucky's Upset Win Over Louisville

During more than a decade of Mark Stoops football at Kentucky, the Big Blue Nation has come to expect quality defense from the Wildcats. The offense, well — that’s another story.

In eleven years there have been six offseasons defined by turnover at the offensive coordinator position. It’s no coincidence that Kentucky recorded its best season in 41 years in Eddie Gran’s third year calling-plays. The Cats developed an identity thanks to continuity, but ultimately that style of play put a hard ceiling on the program.

To take Kentucky to new heights, Mark Stoops chose to change the Wildcats’ philosophy ahead of the 2021 season by hiring Liam Coen to implement a pro-style offense that married Kentucky’s success in the running game with the passing game. It drew future NFL starter Will Levis to Lexington and the Wildcats produced the best offensive season in the Bluegrass since Andre Woodson was under center.

The pro-style system worked immediately, but hit speed bumps as Coen bounced back and forth between Lexington and the NFL. Despite his return for 2023 season, there were still multiple games — South Carolina in particular — where you felt like the Cats would have won if they could just score more points.

It begs the question: Did Kentucky’s offense actually improve in 2023? Let’s take a closer look at the offensive output over the last three seasons.

Kentucky Offensive Efficiency Numbers: 2021-23


202120222023
Points Per Game32.320.428.6
Yards per Play6.475.26.06
Yards per Carry5.233.264.97
Yards per Pass8.07.87.0
Plays per Game66.362.4655.25
20+ yard Plays624759
Third Down50.734.138.1
Red Zone TD%72.253.267.5
SP+ Ranking219743

It’s clear that Kentucky was markedly better in almost every statistical category from 2022 and 2023. Under Rich Scangarello Kentucky ranked last in the SEC in points per game, yards per play, yards per carry and red zone TD%. However, third down efficiency was still subpar, thanks in large part to Kentucky’s inefficiency on first and second down.

The Offense Must Operate Faster

As illustrated above, there was one category where the 2023 Kentucky offense was worse than its predecessors: plays per game. Part of the reason why is out of the control of the Kentucky coaches. The college football rules changed this offseason, which kept the clock running after first downs. The data has not been crunched to determine how many fewer plays were ran across the entire sport, but it’s safe to say the new rules eliminated five or more plays per game for every college football team in America.

The rules do not completely excuse the slow pace of play that was criticized by the Big Blue Nation throughout the offseason. As the rules change, so must the coaches.

It’s a topic that has already been addressed by Mark Stoops within the walls of the Joe Craft Football Training Facility. Do not expect to see Kentucky huddle after every single snap in 2024. That alone should get the Cats back on track with a more efficient operation in-between plays.

Where the Kentucky Offense Fell Flat in 2023

One important stat I did not include in the graph: success rate. What exactly is this advanced stat? It measures efficiency within the context of the down and distance to gain. A play is considered successful if it meets the following parameters:

  • It gains 50% of the yards required to move the chains on first down
  • It gains 70% of the yards required to move the chains on second down
  • It gains 100% of the yards required to move the chains on third and fourth down

During Liam Coen’s first season as offensive coordinator, the Wildcats’ 47.9% success rate was ranked No. 11 in the country. That dropped to No. 100 nationally under Rich Scangarello (38.3%) and was about the same this fall, finishing the regular season ranked No. 109 (39%).

Even though this was just the second offense of the Mark Stoops era to finish the regular season ranked in the Top 50 of the SP+ Rankings, the Wildcats achieved that by being explosive, not efficient. Kentucky must be better on a down-to-basis to get back to the high benchmark set by Coen and co. in 2021.

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2024-03-01