- Non-Negotiable Improvements are self-explanatory. For UK to enjoy a successful season it must address and immensely improve upon the listed statistical classifications.
- Advantage Developments examine actions that were not listed in the upper half of the league but needs to show some improvement in order for Kentucky to better its win/loss record from a year ago.
- Sustain is easy. No change, continue status quo, keep on keeping on, keep on truckin'; you get the picture.
Turnover Margin2016: Recovered 8 fumbles, intercepted 13 passes for a +21 margin. Conversely, UK lost 16 fumbles, threw 12 interceptions for a total of -28. Combined, it formulated a -7 total turnover margin (14th or last in the SEC). 2017 Goal: This number needs to be in the +2 level at a minimum. Mid-pack in the league was a +3 a year ago. This digit’s reduction will assist most all other statistical areas of concern. Last year’s turnovers twisted potential blowout wins into nail biters (Vanderbilt) and potential close game victories into losses (Georgia).
Punting2016: 61 punts, 2335-yards, 38.3 yards per, allowed 125 return yards for a 2-yard average, kicked 5 touchbacks which equaled a total 34.6 net yards per punt (SEC-14th) 2017 Goal: Again, just shooting for mid-level production, a 39-40-yard net punt average would greatly improve field position and ease strain on the defense. Strategic, inside the ten-yard line punt placement also needs immense upgrading. Regardless, punting has to drastically improve.
3rd Down Defense2016: Opponents converted 80 of 180 3rd down attempts for a 44.4% success percentage (SEC-13th) 2017 Goal: 39% would provide Eddie Gran’s offense with more possessions which could translate to additional points. 39% ranks in the middle of the SEC. Plus, getting off the field has been a struggle for Stoops’ defense throughout his tenure. Personnel shortages have greatly impacted this deficiency. 3rd down defense improved down the stretch in 2016 which could act as a precursor for this number to drop even further.
Rush Defense2016: Opponents had 576 carries for 2966-yards, 25 TDs. 5.1 yards per attempt and 228 yards per game ranked 12th in the SEC. 2017 Goal: A realistic goal and more likely a blue lensed view would be for the Wildcats to allow 195-200 yards per game. Lack of proven defensive line depth significantly factors in this estimation. However, UK has an upper-level linebacker corps and secondary which includes the conference’s top two returning tacklers: LB Jordan Jones (109) and Safety Mike Edwards (100). I’m least confident in rush defense improvement than all other statistical projections within this study.
[caption id="attachment_225111" align="alignnone" width="975"] Pic by Kansas City Star[/caption]
Quarterback Sacks2016: Kentucky produced 21 QB sacks for a -171 yards (SEC-11th) 2017 Goal: A conservative 29. 83% of last year’s sacks came from the linebackers. Josh Allen and Denzil Ware combined for 12.5 a year ago. That total was more than Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith combined for in their last season in Lexington. Factor in LB Jordan Jones, Jamar “Boogie” Watson, and a potential rookie or two and 29 is easily an attainable goal. The Cats had several close call sacks during which the quarterback escaped pressure in 2016. The most important number here is the aforementioned 83%. The defensive line and select defensive backs will need to increase its contribution in order for total sacks to increase by eight.
Tackles for Loss2016: 69 tackles for loss for -277 yards, averaged 5.39 TFL per game. 2017 Goal: 80. This column has varied over the years. From 54 in Stoops’ first season to 65 in Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith’s last season in Lexington. 2015’s 53 TFLs was last in the league. Kentucky’s jump to 69 a year ago was quite impressive but not surprising with four explosive linebackers. Matter of fact, LB Jordan Jones (15.5 TFL) and LB/DE Denzil Ware (12 TFL) are the league’s number one and three returning leaders in this category respectively.
Scoring Offense2016: Scored 49 touchdowns, 44 extra points, two 2-point conversions, 16 field goals for 390 total points, 30 points per game (SEC-9th) 2017 Goal: 35 points per game. A decrease in turnovers will increase scoring opportunities. Couple that with a sustained, efficient Red Zone offense and it’s easy to envision UK adding five points per game.
Scoring Defense2016: Allowed 50 touchdowns, 48 extra points, one 2-point conversion, 19 field goals, 407 total points, 31.3 points per game (SEC-11th) 2017 Goal: 27 points per game. With question marks surrounding its defensive line, projecting the Wildcats to decrease its total points per game by four-points per game is a realistic approach. This number isn’t as much of a reflection of an ineffective defense but more out of respect to offenses it will face. Many are expected to light up scoreboards. Missouri, Georgia, Louisville, South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and even Florida are all projected to possess more offensive weapons in 2017. Expect several shootouts.
[caption id="attachment_225110" align="alignnone" width="975"] Pic by SEC Country[/caption]