MUSIC CITY BOWL (Nashville)
CLEMSON VS. KENTUCKY
12/29, 1 p.m. ET ESPN2
POINTSPREAD AT PRESS TIME
Clemson by 10 points, total of 57.5
There weren't too many people at the beginning of the season who expected these two teams to be within one win of each other. Kentucky was coming off a 3-8 performance, and was ranked #72 in Athlon's preseason numbers. Clemson was 8-4 last year, but was seen as a national threat. They were ranked 12th by Athlon and 18th by Phil Steele before play began. Athlon projected 10 wins, no losses, and two coin flip games for the Tigers, just 3-6-3 in those categories for the Wildcats. So, it's not that hard to know who's happy and who's disappointed with their 2006 campaigns. After defeating Georgia Tech 31-7 on October 21st, Clemson stood at 7-1 for the year, and expected to coast in the ACC championship game. They were one of many teams this year that floated up into the upper reaches of the BCS only to get spanked as soon as they got there. Losses to Virginia Tech and Maryland ended their ACC hopes. A season-ending loss to state rival South Carolina finished off the fade out. Kentucky managed to post a winning record without beating anybody who mattered. They did upset Georgia (having a down year) 24-20 despite getting outgained. They did beat MAC champion Central Michigan 45-36 despite getting outgained by about 170 yards. Their other five games against bowl teams were losses. Kentucky's record exceeded expectations by a good degree, but it's still a soft 7-5 given the game stats and the list of victims.
Clemson: 34-15 versus the 67th ranked schedule
Kentucky: 27-29 versus the 20th ranked schedule
Clemson's a bully that loves to run up the score on lesser teams. This was one of the reasons they were able to trick pundits and handicappers into thinking they were better than they really were. When things click, they really click. Final scores in the first half of the season included marks of 54-6, 52-7, 51-0, and 63-9. They subsequently missed the spread by double digits in the other direction against Virginia Tech, Maryland, and NC State because people overrate blowouts in their power ratings. Clemson would have done the same against Wake Forest if not for a return of a blown field goal attempt for a TD. So, Clemson's not really +19 in the differential. They're plus 40-50 against patsies, and about even with generic mid-level teams in major conferences. Kentucky shows up fairly well in those numbers. Yes, it's a minus differential...but it was a highly regarded schedule. You'll see in a bit that the yardage was much worse than the scores were versus their 2006 slate.
Clemson: 6-6 versus the spread
Kentucky: 7-4 versus the spread
You can break down Clemson a few ways. They were 6-2 ATS to start the season, 0-4 ATS to finish. They were 3-0 ATS in their non-conference patsy games, 3-6 ATS versus everyone else. They were 1-3 ATS as single digit favorites, 1-3 ATS as favorites of 14-17 points, and 3-0 ATS as favorites or more than 17 points. However you slice it...Clemson was a bully in 2006 who was great to take versus bad teams, but overpriced versus everyone else. Kentucky turned out to be much more competitive than people expected on the scoreboard. They didn't really have a set pattern for this. They hung tough with Florida and Tennessee at high spreads, but got annihilated by LSU and Louisville at high spreads. They beat Ole Miss and Vanderbilt by double digits...but they only beat a horrible Louisiana Monroe team 42-40. They were 3-1 ATS to start the year, and 4-1 ATS to finish the year. In a nutshell, a value team that was never automatic.
AVERAGE YARDS PER GAME/TURNOVER INFLUENCE
Clemson: +141.6, with a season turnover differential of +3
Kentucky: -85.2, with a season turnover differential of +13
This is where the problems with Kentucky come into play. The defense was just ridiculously bad...but managed to force enough turnovers to make up for it. The won-lost record for the year was 7-5. If victories were based on total yardage rather than total points, Kentucky would have been 2-10. Last year's team would have been 0-11. So, we're talking about a team that's been outgained in 21 of their last 23 games! Real teams don't do that. There are no cases on record of good teams constantly getting outgained. Typically, the yardage and real records are in the same neighborhoods. Clemson was actually 10-2 in yardage this year. Past studies have made it clear that teams who rely on turnovers to cover up blemishes eventually lose that advantage. Then it's just all blemishes. Because of this fact, we're not optimistic about the long term health of the program. The 2006 season is more likely to look like a fluke down the road than a sign of good things to come. Clemson's yardage is inflated from the blowouts when things clicked, and from their tendency to move between the 20's before stalling against decent defenses. They gained 394 yards but scored just 12 points against Maryland in an extreme example of that fact.
QUARTERBACK TD/INT RATIOS
Clemson: 15-10, stunningly low for this style of offense
Kentucky: 28-7, double, triple, quadruple take???!!!
Yup, that's right. Kentucky was lights out in this category. This is clearly one of the great unreported stories of the year. Kentucky's defense was certifiably horrible. Quarterback Andre Woodson helped overcome that with a spectacular 28-7 TD/INT ratio playing in the SEC against a schedule that included Florida, LSU, Tennessee, South Carolina, Georgia, and then Louisville in non-conference action. I would venture to guess that any of us seeing the numbers without the teams would have guessed that Clemson was the 28-7 team, and Kentucky was the 15-10 team. It has to be said that Woodson didn't necessarily light up the scoreboard against the powers. Kentucky scored 7 on Florida, 0 on LSU, and 12 on Tennessee. He did manage to avoid interception disasters in those games, then he was a legitimate star when the team stepped down in class in terms of opposition.
Clemson is a spread-offense bully that runs up the score on lesser teams, but gets exposed as soft when the game is likely to be decided at the point of attack. Different teams do different things with their spread-type offenses...but they belong in the general class of West Virginia, Louisville, and even a Boise State or Hawaii. People give them a lot of credit after watching the blowouts, then scratch their heads while watching the defenses get pushed around by Virginia Tech, South Florida, Rutgers, or whoever. The key to handicapping this game from the Clemson perspective is determining whether Kentucky's defense is so bad that they qualify as patsy opposition.
Kentucky brings fire and enthusiasm to the field, they just don't have the horses to compete with the elite teams in the country week in and week out. The defense might as well be toothpicks dressed as matadors some weeks. Kentucky allowed over 600 yards twice this year (Louisville and Vandy), and over 500 yards an additional four times (Florida, LSU, Central Michigan, and Louisiana Monroe). They forced four or more turnovers on FOUR separate occasions though, leading to victories over Ole Miss, Central Michigan, Georgia, and Vandy (okay, toothpicks dressed as sneaky matadors). A quarterback who performs very well vs. soft defenses helped disguise their defensive weaknesses. The key to handicapping the game from Kentucky's perspective is determining if Woodson can move the ball vs. Clemson's class of defense, and if Kentucky's defense can force a few miscues.
GAMES VERSUS SIMILAR OPPONENTS
The only game that may really matter here is the Kentucky/Louisville season opener. We cited Louisville as being in the Clemson family of teams. Louisville was probably better than Clemson in that opener because both their star QB and star RB were healthy to start the game. Louisville beat Kentucky 59-28, winning total yardage 631-260. Clemson didn't play anyone similar to Kentucky. There's a shortage of teams that go 2-10 in yardage but win enough games to go to a bowl. There's a shortage of teams who allow 500 yards on command. You could probably argue that Kentucky is like a mid-major team that has a good QB. Clemson did fare well against mid-major defenses.
MOTIVATION FOR THIS GAME
Clemson is probably disappointed. Like so many others this year, they were dreaming the dreams of the BCS. They, at least, thought they'd make the ACC championship game. This is an enormous letdown for them.
Kentucky has to be very excited about earning a bowl bid. Nobody expected anything from this team, yet here they are.
LAST YEAR'S BOWL PERFORMANCES
Clemson beat Colorado 19-10 as a 10-point favorite in the Champs Sports Bowl, winning yardage 365-124
Kentucky didn't qualify for a bowl last year.
RECENT BOWL TRENDS
Clemson has been inconsistent, alternating covers with non-covers their last five appearances. No clear patterns that seem to mean anything.
Kentucky hasn't been to a bowl since 1999.
WHAT'S IT ALL MEAN?
We set out some "keys" in the team characteristics section. Will Clemson show up mentally against Kentucky?. If this were a September meeting in sunny weather, it's would be easy to see Clemson coasting past 40 points on their way to 50. It's not September, and the team may not be all that motivated.
Can Kentucky move the ball on Clemson's defense? Or, will this look like the games against Florida, LSU, or Tennessee where the team struggled to get on the board? This one's honestly very tough to judge. Clemson had some excellent defensive numbers this year even though they're relatively undersized. Eight of their first 11 opponents couldn't reach 300 total yards. When the offense clicks, it moves the chains and runs clock. When the offense clicks, opposing teams have to pass to play catch up. This year the ACC had a slew of lousy quarterbacks and awful offenses, none were good at playing catch up. Top to bottom, it may have been the worst 12 starting quarterbacks we've ever seen in one year in one conference. Clemson's non-conference games were against patsies who couldn't play catch up either. How do we judge?
It's telling to note that Clemson's season finale was against South Carolina. South Carolina doesn't necessarily have a great offense, but it's better than your typical ACC team. Amazingly, South Carolina gained 492 yards on Clemson. They rushed for over 200 yards on almost six yards per carry, and passed for almost 300 yards. That game, at least, offers some hope for Kentucky fans.
I'd rate the percentages this way:
35% that Clemson no-shows and Kentucky wins the game. It's much more common for big dogs to do that than people realize. Ten-point underdogs won twice last year. Kentucky has the clear motivational edge, and they have a quarterback who can move the ball. If Clemson is flat, this game could get away from them quickly.
30% that Clemson doesn't no-show, but Kentucky still manages to stay within the tall number because Woodson just won't go away. He either keeps the Wildcats in a shootout, or he leads them to a garbage time score that stays within the tall spread.
35% that Clemson has one of those patsy blowout results where they blow and go while the opponent has trouble keeping up.
You know, my gut looks at that 28-7 ratio for Woodson, and I want to make this 80/20 for Kentucky because it lines up so well with the probable motivation. Discretion is better because Clemson's defense did have good numbers this year, while Kentucky's didn't. Just because we can remember similar bowl games where the dogs played great doesn't mean it's always going to happen. The percentages above add up to 65/35 for Kentucky, with a moneyline recommendation on the longshot.
What about the total? It's very easy to see a 70 point game here, or beyond. Kentucky played to 87 in that game with Louisville we discussed, to an 81 with Central Michigan, to a 65 with Mississippi State, to a 64 with Vanderbilt, and to an 82 with Louisiana Monroe. If this were a September game...we might have this 80/20 for the Over. The below factors suggest caution:
*Late December weather in this city *Clemson might be flat, and you don't want to go Over a high total if one offense might be flat *Clemson's good defense numbers should get more respect than we're giving them, and Kentucky's not really going to have a big day
Since we know going in that Kentucky's got an awful defense, taking Kentucky is already taking the Over to a degree. You're not looking to sneak by 20-17 unless the weather is terrible.
Taken separately, both Kentucky and the Over make a lot of sense. Since there's so much overlap, taking both propositions doesn't really push you further along edge-wise. Ten minutes ago I thought Kentucky made a bit more sense...ten minutes from now it might be the Over. It's easy to visualize a motivated dog being the straw that stirs the drink. Is a 27-24 upset likely (meaning you kick yourself for taking the Over when the dog was so easy), or is a 51-30 loss more likely (meaning you kick yourself for taking Kentucky when Clemson matched up so well against this soft Wildcats defense)?
If you think Clemson will be flat...you move one way. If you think they'll show up, you move the other way.