With our bowl game against Kentucky coming up on Saturday afternoon, we chatted with Will Marshall of A Sea of Blue, our UK counterparts at SBNation. You can find his answers to our questions below, and our answers over at their site right here.
1. After a rough start to the season, the Wildcats rebounded nicely, including a huge upset win against Louisville – what are you thoughts on Stoops as HC? Is he a good fit and here to stay, or are Kentucky fans already wondering who’s next?
In short, I think Stoops came here a professional coach, but over the last few years he's become someone who can oversee a program.
He arrived with a recruiting strategy. He prioritizes Ohio and it helps that Urban Meyers recruits nationally, as opposed to Jim Tressel's approach at Ohio State, and he will redshirt any player that can't crack the two-deep. Two simple and sound strategies that previous UK coaches didn't always execute for confusing reasons.
He has shown a tendency to learn from his mistakes in terms of personnel. The offense in 2015 regressed under Shannon Dawson, so he quickly fired him along with another position coach. He didn't like the direction of the strength and conditioning program, and he so he hired new staff this off-season which paid dividends. Finally, when he initially arrived in Lexington he didn't seem comfortable doing media which I think turned off some people, but by now he's practically a maestro at handling potential media pratfalls.
Critically, the players pretty clearly care about him based on how they bounced back this season, and his assistants have never left by choice unless they received a promotion elsewhere.
Stoops' hot seat has cooled considerably as soon as he reached bowl eligibility against Austin Peay. Six wins was the bare minimum expected this season for the vast majority of fans. Stoops' recruiting classes - highly-rated for Kentucky's historical standards - comprised the entire roster, and the SEC East was looking at a down year. It's difficult to imagine anything less than six wins would have been acceptable barring a string of fluky one-score losses culminating in a third straight five win season.
2. I haven’t actually watched a UK game this season, so can you tell me about your offense? What style is it? I know it’s predicated on the ground game, but is that from more spread formations or pro-style?
It's a hybrid pro-style scheme that aims for a run-pass balance. As the season progressed the coaches began adapting it to the team's strengths. Boom Williams, Jojo Kemp, and Benny Snell Jr are all good running backs, and UK returned grizzled experience at the center and guards positions, and so more emphasis was placed on the ground game to highlight that strength while mitigating weaknesses at the offensive tackle and quarterback positions. A great example of this is running the ball out of the Wildcat formation. UK will also run zone reads, and does some run-pass option too.
By the end of the year, the tackles and quarterback Stephen Johnson could be trusted more in the passing game. Overall, UK will mostly stay in Shotgun with 10 or 11 Personnel. They will almost always have three receivers on the field. Johnson throws a better deep ball than intermediate one, so UK will use its running game as body blows in the hope of opening up for shots downfield with receivers Jeff Badet, Garrett Johnson, and Dorian Baker. By the end of the season, if Badet got single coverage on the outside, UK would try and exploit that.
UK will not look to play tempo to protect their defense. They want to control possession of the ball as much as possible.
3. What position match up on offense or defense gives you the most concern when facing Tech this year?
On paper, I'm not too concerned about any Georgia Tech match-up against Kentucky's offense. UK's offense has steadily improved all season, and can trust its running game. Having said that, I am quasi-concerned about Johnson being careless with the ball around Georgia Tech's secondary.
For UK's defense I'm concerned about everything. Georgia Tech obviously has an elite offense when it's operating efficiently. UK's front seven played better assignment football towards the end of the year (notably against Lamar Jackson and Louisville zone read plays), but they'll have to do it every snap against Georgia Tech. I'm also worried about the secondary being lulled to sleep, and as a result giving up explosive plays in play-action.
4. Averaging 7.1 ypc, Stanley Williams seems to be quite the formidable RB, at least on paper. What are some other names we should look out for on UK’s offense?
His back-up Benny Snell Jr. who as a true freshman was labelled the surprise of fall camp, and the hype ended up being well-deserved as he rushed for 1,050 yards with a 5.9 yard average. Stephen Johnson continued to improve as the season went along, especially against Louisville, and I'm interested to see how he performs in the bowl game. Other skill players I'd highlight are tight end CJ Conrad and the receivers Badet, Johnson, Baker, and Ryan Timmons. Those guys are all pretty good but not great weapons.
It'd also be negligent if I didn't point out UK's offensive line led by center Jon Toth. Watching him and the four guards UK rotates in usually leads to shoulder pads exploding if you're into that sort of thing. Right tackle Cole Mosier is a former walk-on who also improved as the season went along.
5. From just looking at scores at stats, Kentucky doesn’t appear to have the most formidable defense, and looks similar to Tech in that regard. What would you say the cause of the defense’s struggles stems from?
The slow start to the season killed this defense's chances of having anything close to a decent score in terms of the "advanced" stats, and that's largely due to losing eight starters who were responsible for 73% of all tackles in the 2015 season. At a micro-level, inexperience has translated to poor fundamentals for big segments of the season. Inside linebackers taking poor angles, outside linebackers not keeping contain, defensive linemen slow and/or high at the snap, and poor communication in the secondary.
When UK faced average to below average offenses this season like Missouri, Vanderbilt, and South Carolina it fared very well. Offenses featuring good running backs and/or dual-threat quarterbacks gashed the defense for the most part like Georgia, Mississippi State, and Tennessee. UK was able to beat UofL because it mostly played disciplined against the likely Heisman-winning dual-threat quarterback, but also because they were able to force four turnovers and get off the field.
Georgia Tech has a dual-threat quarterback and a strong running attack, unfortunately.
6. And finally, how do you see this game playing out and what’s your score prediction?
From the outset, I figured this game would feature both teams scoring a lot of points with both averaging around 6 yards per carry. The Louisville-LSU game starts at the same time as UK-Georgia Tech, but I think our bowl will finish around the time UofL-LSU are just beginning their fourth quarter.
Being that it's been a long time since UK was in a bowl, I feel like being a homer and picking UK to win 38-35. I can usually be objective, but I want to keep my "fan hat" on this time around.
Now, let me come up with some sort of semi-plausible justification: I think both offenses do essentially whatever they want to do against the opposing defense, but UK's offense will be more explosive translating to quicker scoring drives. Georgia Tech will respond with their own points, but more slowly and so will slowly lose the battle of attrition. I think UK having a few weeks to prepare for Georgia Tech's offense does just enough to blunt the damage that would have otherwise have been inflicted if this were a regular season game. Plus, UK's defense closed the season averaging three takeaways per game, and I think that will help despite Georgia Tech's +3 turnover margin for the season.
Thanks again to Will and A Sea of Blue for taking the time to speak with us. Remember to check out our end of the Q&A over at their blog.
Hopefully Georgia Tech will end the season 3-0 against the SEC and we can send JT5 out with one more win. As always, go Jackets!