After a thrilling win against Tennessee, the 2017 Florida Gators will find out a lot about themselves in the next game on the road against Kentucky.
The Wildcats have lost to Florida 30 straight times, and no doubt are tired of hearing about it. Coach Mark Stoops has been in place for 5 years, so his imprint on the program appears to be taking shape.
The Gators look vulnerable after struggling again on offense for three quarters against the Vols. It’s hard to know what to expect from the offense and quarterback Feleipe Franks in his first true road game.
But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t cues that we can look at to understand each team, and understand how they will attack each other. Kentucky has a lot of Gators fans worried after taking down Will Muschamp and South Carolina on the road, 23-13, last week.
The question is whether that worry is warranted?
2016 season comparison
As always, this early in the season, we start with what these teams accomplished in 2016. Florida posted a 9-4 record last year compared to 7-6 for Kentucky. But the difference between the teams is more exaggerated than that.
Kentucky was outscored for the 2016 season, indicating its winning record was a bit of a mirage. The scoring differential for the Wildcats got worse once SEC play began (minus 6.5 ppg). The Gators – on the other hand – were a touchdown better than their opponents, and nearly 4 points better than their SEC competition.
Because both teams play in the SEC East, they played seven common opponents (including each other). In those games, Florida was more than 2 touchdowns better than Kentucky. Kentucky did show an ability to win against quality opponents, defeating Louisville 41-38. But the Wildcats also face-planted against a 7-6 Southern Mississippi team to open the year.
But for 2016, the takeaway is Florida was somewhere between 8-15 points better than Kentucky. The question then is whether the changes and growth Kentucky has made from last year to this outpaces the Gators by that amount?
If 2017 is any indication, Kentucky has improved considerably. The Wildcats have outscored its three opponents by 9.3 points per game thus far and bring back quite a few starters from last season.
Perhaps the most important player returning is senior QB Stephen Johnson. Johnson is a dual-threat QB who ran for 327 yards in 2016 and has already run for 132 this season, including the run that sealed the victory against South Carolina. Florida has historically struggled with running QBs (think Joshua Dobbs), and with the tackling issues the Gators showed against Tennessee, Johnson’s running ability may be a factor in the game.
As a passer, Johnson played well last season, posting a QB rating of 130.9 in 12 games. He has improved in the first three games this season, posting a QB rating of 140.9 in 67 attempts. That ranks 58th in the country. However, that is boosted by his performance against Eastern Kentucky and drops to 126.6 if only including FBS opponents, which is 2016 Austin Appleby territory.
Interestingly, the 59th-ranked QB on that list: Florida’s Feleipe Franks. Historically QBs play significantly worse on the road. And since Franks is making his first start on the road as a starter, he’s likely going to be asked to manage the game and avoid turnovers that will give Kentucky cheap points.
Franks showed significant growth between the games against Michigan and Tennessee. He still locked onto his first read too often (pretty much every time) and either did not feel comfortable – or did not have permission – to check out of running plays that were doomed from the pre-snap defensive alignment.
In the image below, Tennessee has eight men in the box against Florida’s eight blockers. Tennessee safety Nigel Warrior (circled) creeped up toward the line, showing blitz. This means Florida has eight blockers for nine defenders. Based on this alignment, the other safety has deep responsibilities and Tennessee’s corner at the top of the screen is giving a huge cushion to the wide receiver (arrow).
I watched live as Franks checked at the line of scrimmage and thought that was real growth for him, as I assumed he was changing the play to a quick screen to the wide receiver. It’s a high percentage play that likely keeps the clock running, much the same way a run would.
Instead, Franks apparently checked to run the ball away from the blitz to the right side of the field. Warrior didn’t make a tackle on this play, but Florida was having enough trouble moving the line of scrimmage that checking to a pass was the right move here. Facing a second-and-14 on the next play and nursing a 3-point lead, Franks threw what could have been a backbreaking interception.
If Franks wasn’t allowed to make this check at home, I don’t imagine he’ll be allowed to on the road either. These are the types of things where the experience advantage for Johnson is going to show up in the game. Franks has raw ability, but Johnson has a longer track record and is likely the better signal caller at this time.
Kentucky returns a bevy of offensive players and production from 2016, in particular receiver Johnson Garrett (39 catches), tight end C.J. Conrad (19 catches) and running back Benny Snell (1091 yards rushing). Conrad leads the team with 7 catches, averaging 23 yards per catch in 2017.
But those returning starters have not led to an increase in production. The chart below shows Kentucky’s drop in offensive production against FBS opponents from 2016 to 2017 (stats compiled from www.teamrankings.com).
Admittedly this is a small sample size for 2017. But it’s not as if Kentucky has been playing juggernaut defenses. Southern Mississippi had the 83rd-ranked defense in 2016 and South Carolina ranked 43rd. Kentucky has been struggling even though Johnson has been running more effectively than usual and putting up stats that are better than last year.
So what gives? Well, Snell – who averaged 5.9 yards per rush in 2016 – is averaging 3.8 yards per rush in 2017. Again, these aren’t top-25 opponents that Kentucky is playing and there isn’t any indication that Snell is hurt.
Instead, this drop-off likely points toward the offensive line. Sophomore Landon Young has stepped in for fifth-year senior Cole Mosier, who tore his ACL during a fall scrimmage. Looking at last year’s depth chart, Mosier is not the only shakeup.
Sophomore left guard Logan Stenberg was a backup last season. Jervontius Stallings has moved from right guard to center. Nick Haynes has moved from left to right guard. The only constant is Kyle Meadows at right tackle. That’s a lot of change for a unit that returns three starters, and because of the timing of Mosier’s injury, most of that shuffling probably came late in fall camp.
On the Florida side, it’s no secret the Gators offense has struggled. But the Gators aren’t any worse than Kentucky, ranking 111th in offensive yards and 85th in points per game.
Again, we need to caution ourselves not to read too much into a two-game sample size. But the progress that Florida fans have been shouting for showed up in the fourth quarter against Tennessee. Running back Malik Davis showed big-play ability and the coaches got Kadarius Toney the ball in space.
More than anything, it appeared the coaching staff decided in that quarter to give up the idea that the offensive line was the strength of the team. Instead, Florida ran misdirection to help the line, running plays to give it numbers advantages that freed up Florida’s playmakers.
This was a significant departure from the “win your 1-on-1 battles” rhetoric coming from coach Jim McElwain prior to the game. If Florida continues the trend of protecting the offensive line through scheme rather than trying to use it as a strength, the offense is going to continue to improve.
But I’m not sure that happens here. As I noted in last week’s column and on the Gators Breakdown podcast, Florida doesn’t run the ball well away from the Swamp. That split has continued in the two games against Michigan and Tennessee. Florida is likely going to struggle to run the ball. The good news for Florida is that it appears that Kentucky will as well.
Defense is where Kentucky appears to have made significant strides in 2017. Compared to 2016, it is a completely different unit.
Kentucky has improved in both yards allowed and cut points allowed by half. Much of this is likely owed to the number of returning starters on defense.
Kentucky returns nine starters from last year’s defense. That experience no doubt is one of the reasons for the significant improvement. But the underlying statistics don’t necessarily show a significant improvement for the Kentucky defense.
As shown in the above chart, Kentucky has almost the same ratio of explosive plays (TFL divided by total tackles) in 2017 as it did in 2016. The key difference has been in turnovers, as the Wildcats are averaging 0.7 more turnovers per game than last season.
You might attribute that to aggressiveness borne from experience. But 4 of the 7 turnovers in 2017 are fumble recoveries, and Kentucky is recovering 80 percent of the fumbles it forces on defense. Fumble recoveries are based mostly on luck and are usually recovered at a 50-percent clip. If 2 of those fumbles had gone the other way, Kentucky would be back to the 1.6 turnover per game average.
I suspect that much of the defensive improvement seen by the Wildcats is attributable to fumble luck, which isn’t sustainable. That doesn’t mean Kentucky will cease to recover fumbles, but that percentage should return closer to 50 percent.
Couple that with the likely loss of linebacker Jordan Jones due to a shoulder injury and Kentucky could be in trouble. Jones led the team last season with 15.5 tackles for loss. His absence means Florida will be able to focus on the strong side linebacker, Josh Allen. Allen had 7 sacks and 4 forced fumbles in 2016 and has 3 sacks and a forced fumble in 2017.
On the other side, the Florida defense looks bad statistically using basic yardage and points allowed metrics at this point in the year. Again, the two game sample size caveat applies. It also isn’t fair to compare Florida’s statistics to Kentucky’s because Florida has played two ranked teams to start the year while Kentucky has played an FCS team.
But the statistics exploring explosion tell a much more promising story for the Gators. Florida has given up a fairly robust 4.9 yards per rush. Some of that was due to the 6.0 yards per rush the Gators gave up to Tennessee after spending more than 20 minutes on the field in the second half.
But the important thing to take from this chart is Florida is getting after the opposing quarterback. I noted last week that Tennessee QB Quentin Dormady had a record in high school of throwing interceptions and pressure might cause him to throw a few the Gators way. That’s exactly what happened.
Johnson doesn’t have that same record of throwing picks, but every quarterback gets much worse when pressured. Florida has produced explosive plays on 11.3 percent of plays, an impressive clip. Interestingly, the sack numbers for the Gators looked great against Michigan but they only brought down Dormady once. But that doesn’t tell the whole story, as the Gators have averaged 9.5 combined sacks and QB hurries in its two games.
Turnovers have driven much of Kentucky’s improvement on defense. They may be better than last year, but they aren’t as good as they currently look statistically. Conversely, Florida probably looks worse looking at traditional stats because of its level of competition at this point. But the turnovers Florida is producing aren’t fluky based on fumble luck.
The 5 interceptions are directly tied to pressuring the quarterback consistently. And with the offensive line issues I outlined above, I don’t see that changing in the game against Kentucky.
Jim McElwain could have cost the Gators the game against Tennessee. The clock management at the end – particularly with a weapon as dangerous as kicker Eddy Pineiro – was really bad. It was a mistake not to call a timeout after Franks’ scramble, and just because the result was the coolest sports moment I’ve ever experienced in-person doesn’t mean he should be absolved of the clock management mistakes.
But one of the hidden things that perhaps went unnoticed at the time was McElwain taking a timeout with 1 minute, 6 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter even though the clock was stopped. The timeout came immediately after CeCe Jefferson was caught grasping John Kelly’s facemask and the entire defense was fatigued. Duke Dawson had left the field injured at that point and so Florida had freshman Marco Wilson and C.J. Henderson on the outside.
Taking the timeout there was a poor allocation of those resources. With a minute left, you typically have to make sure your timeouts are used to stop the clock. Had Butch Jones wanted to run twice to run the clock down, he could have done that. Instead though, Jones likely saw what McElwain saw: inexperience and fatigue at defensive back.
It almost didn’t matter as Kelly dropped a sure touchdown on the next pass. But Wilson and Henderson both defended the next two plays expertly and Tennessee was forced to settle for a field goal.
All of this to say that in close games, these types of decisions matter. McElwain is now 8-1 in close games at Florida and 16-4 overall as a head coach. Kentucky coach Mark Stoops is 8-8. That isn’t an indictment of Stoops as that is exactly what you would expect. McElwain has been an outlier thus far in his career, but I have written about how much of that appears to be attributable to in-game decision making.
I’ve also written about looking at the difference between recruiting rankings and finish in the AP poll as a measure of a coach’s acumen. Stoops has not finished in the AP poll in his time at Kentucky so instead I used ESPN’s final FPI ranking and efficiency rankings to get an idea of how Kentucky fared compared to Stoop’s recruiting.
That’s not all that impressive. Stoops has been bringing in top-30 classes for five straight years and the team has not played like it. Using this metric, McElwain grades out slightly worse than comparing to AP poll finish (averages of 25.5 for FPI and 26 for efficiency vs. 19.5 AP), but it’s still way closer to his recruiting ranking (16.5) than Stoops.
Stoops is not Butch Jones. I haven’t seen him bungle things constantly like Jones does. But Stoops also has much less talent than Jones and much less talent than the Gators.
Based on star rankings, the Gators outclass the Wildcats on both offense (3.5 to 2.9 average star ranking) and defense (3.6 to 3.1). The fact that Stoops hasn’t shown an ability to maximize his talent only widens that gap. McElwain was out coached by Jim Harbaugh and didn’t do a great job against Tennessee. But his track record is significantly stronger than Stoops.
Each team’s offense grades out similarly. While Florida’s defense doesn’t rank high in statistical categories like points per game and yards allowed, the Gators’ quality of competition and underlying statistics indicate they are better than what the traditional statistics show. The coaching advantage also goes to Florida.
So why is Florida only a 3-point favorite? Well, the first reason is Johnson. He gives Kentucky a known at quarterback compared to a relative unknown in Feleipe Franks making his first road start. If Franks throws 3 interceptions, Florida doesn’t have the firepower to mount a comeback.
The second reason is the Gators’ struggles on the road. Florida outscored opponents by 25.2 points per game at home in 2016 but was outscored by 4.1 points on the road. The Arkansas game was an example where an inferior team was able to dominate Florida because of issues up-front, although there were signs the Razorbacks might give the Gators trouble.
But Kentucky also has issues up-front. Couple that with Florida’s ability to get to the quarterback, and I’m not sure Kentucky is going to be able to move the ball very well, either.
And at the end of the day, I keep going back to this. In 2016, Kentucky was 10 points worse than Florida against SEC opponents. Three games against middling teams does not convince me that Kentucky’s statistical improvements are real.
As shown in the star rankings above, Kentucky is about to get challenged by players of a caliber they haven’t yet faced this season. Florida has spent the first two games playing against exactly that kind of talent.
Yes, the game is on the road and so that probably does lower the score compared to last year’s 45-7 shellacking in the Swamp. But Florida is better than Kentucky, and likely similar to that 10-point differential they showed last year.
Florida wins, 27-17.