Glenn Logan of the well-known SB Nation blog A Sea of Blue was gracious enough to take part in a Q&A with me to preview this weekend's matchup between the South Carolina Gamecocks and the Kentucky Wildcats. Here's what he had to say; questions in bold. My answers to Glenn's questions can be found here; many thanks again to Glenn for participating in this Q&A. As he says in his post, we've been working together on these Q&As for many years, and I've always enjoyed the civil banter with the Wildcats community over there.
1. By all accounts, Mark Stoops has made a positive impression on the BBN. Why has he been such a success in his initial months as head coach?
I think this can mostly be encapsulated in one word -- recruiting. Every member of the Big Blue Nation understands the concept that "recruiting is the lifeblood of [fill in sport here]" from basketball. They have seen what great recruiting can do for basketball, and Stoops has markedly upped Kentucky's game in football recruiting. That's what's really got the BBN excited about him.
On the field, I'm not sure you could say he was a "success" yet. He has yet to win an SEC game. He has yet to defeat a school inside the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Although the team does look like it is showing signs, it is still 1-3, and facing a schedule that is unlikely to produce another victory for a while.
But Stoops is young, and so far, the BBN seems to get that. He's learning how to be a head coach, and as with every other profession, that comes with a price. Paying it now is probably a really good thing.
2. Despite the hype surrounding some of Stoops's early exploits, he currently sits on a huge rebuilding job, and the Wildcats have not looked good so far this season. How much hope is there among the fans that he can get this team turned around and make a run at bowl eligibility?
"The Wildcats have not looked good so far ..." is a relative thing. Kentucky has looked much better than last year, and even though that's still not enough to produce victories, it is sufficient to suggest that the team is moving in the right direction. As we all know, football is not like basketball. You can't just recruit a bunch of 5-star studs and turn out a national contender with freshmen at the wheel like you can in hoops. This program will take years to markedly improve.
We have hope, and if the recruiting success continues, I think the hopes will be realized to some extent. I myself doubt Kentucky can be remade into a consistent contender in the SEC, but to be honest, that's not really required. We just need to be competitive and have more good years than rotten ones, preferably many more. That's pretty much the bar Stoops has to clear, and it's not a particularly high one. Few in the BBN expect Kentucky to become the new Georgia, or even the new Auburn.
3. Both Maxwell Smith and Jalen Whitlow have gotten playing time at QB for the Wildcats. What skill sets does each bring to the table? Which do you expect to get the bulk of the snaps against the Gamecocks?
Maxwell Smith is a pocket passer with limited athleticism. He is mostly the kind of quarterback you want in the Air Raid offense that Neal Brown runs, because he can distribute the ball accurately to skill players in space. Of course, that's predicated on them catching it, which has been a real problem so far. We had 8 passes dropped in the Louisville game.
Jalen Whitlow is a dual-threat quarterback who can do as much damage with his legs as with his arm. He's not as accurate as Smith throwing the ball, and he often will opt to run rather than pass if there's not a wide-open receiver that he finds right away. He misses some easy throws, so his confidence throwing the ball is not as good as Smith.
I expect Smith to get the bulk of the snaps. Neal Brown really wants to run the Air Raid, even though our personnel are not really suited to it yet. We lack depth at receiver, and have a lot of decent running threats. If Smith sputters, expect Whitlow to come in and try his hand.
4. The numbers might be skewed by the fact that Kentucky just got done playing Florida, a team with excellent defense and weak offense, but it would appear that UK is stronger on defense than offense. Is that correct? If so, what does Kentucky do best on defense? Why does it struggle on offense?
It seems to me the defense is better, which makes sense when you have an ex-defensive coordinator as your head coach. We have limited depth defensively, but we do have some very good players.
Kentucky has been very good at rushing the passer this year, and Kentucky is currently second in the SEC in the passing defense category. Za'Darius Smith, Bud Dupree and Avery Williamson have all been a big part of this, and we have some freshmen who are beginning to be contributors as well, such as true freshman Blake McClain. Kentucky is currently 4th in quarterback sacks, which is an indicator that the pass rush is working well.
Why has Kentucky struggled on offense? Well, there are a variety of reasons, the first of which is that I don't think Kentucky knows what kind of team it is on offense. In both the Western Kentucky and Miami (OH) games, we saw UK run it more than pass, and no version of the Air Raid would produce that kind of run/pass ratio. While Brown's version of the Air Raid is more run heavy, certainly than Mike Leach or Hal Mumme's version, you should certainly expect more passes than runs.
The last two games have been closer to the 60/40 pass/run ratio we have been expecting, and we have seen a lot of those plays that could have been successful if only we had decent execution. The scheme has been fine, but the execution has been a real problem, and not only from the skill positions.
For example, left tackle Darian Miller failed to block Florida's defensive end at all on two plays in the 4th quarter, 5 plays apart, both leading to sacks. One was on the freshman center, who called the wrong protection, but the other was just his failure of execution. That killed a promising drive, where UK was at the Florida 20 and the sack, plus another poor blocking job that lead to a TFL, took us out of field goal range. That is emblematic of the way Kentucky's season has gone offensively. Whenever Kentucky gets in or near the red zone, they manage a negative play, or even a series of them.
5. Other than Jadeveon Clowney, which player from the Gamecocks' roster would you most like to have? Why would he help UK?
That's easy -- Connor Shaw. Shaw is the perfect Air Raid quarterback, very similar to Drew Barker who we have coming in next season (which is probably why Steve Spurrier recruited him so hard). Shaw has great legs as well as a good, accurate arm, and he would be the answer to our quarterback conundrum that is currently bedeviling the coaching staff. In fact, I'd take Shaw over Clowney -- our defensive ends may not be Clowney good, but they are good enough.
6. Give us a score prediction.
If form holds, 28-7 South Carolina. Coming in to Columbia and defeating the top 15 Gamecocks would be tough for any team in the SEC not named Alabama, and maybe even for them. It's irrational to think that Kentucky in its current state could do so absent a complete failure of USC to take them seriously, or a completely unexpected offensive outburst.
But I think our defense will test your offense, and if UK's offense moves the ball at all and gives the defense some rest, we could see a closer game, but probably not a different result. If you screw around and let our offense score a couple of touchdowns, though, you could have a real ballgame on your hands.