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By Alex Forkner | Football columnist
Realism won out over optimism this UK football season, after astronomical expectations in the preseason gave way to less than stellar results on the field.
Some figured Mark Stoops’ arrival would make for an instant turnaround, akin to what Auburn University is experiencing this season with Gus Malzahn as head coach of the Tigers. But miracles on the gridiron are hard to come by in Lexington, and history shows they usually don’t even go the Cats’ way.
All that being said, could it be we’re facing a future where being realistic and optimistic about UK football are one in the same?
Here are three 100-percent verifiable reasons why it definitely could be so.
1. UK is recruiting like never before.
Remember when UK’s best recruiting classes amounted to mediocre national rankings and second-to-last in the SEC? Remember the days of two-star projects that didn’t pan out (Randall Cobb obviously doesn’t count, because Randall Cobb is an alien)?
Those days are seemingly in the past. Stoops and his staff are accomplishing the impossible and securing the signatures of highly-touted players.
According to the latest Rivals rankings, UK’s class is ninth in the country and fifth in the SEC, with work left to do.
Before, UK was relegated to picking through the scrap heap of players in Georgia and Florida after the top teams took the top players. Now, UK has finally forded the Ohio River, netting nine players from the Buckeye State, six of them with a four-star ranking.
UK has a total of 10 four-star commits, per Rivals, and has made headway in Texas, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and even New York (four-star defensive tackle commit Cory Johnson is from ASA College in Brooklyn).
Even if some traditional powers pass up UK in the rankings before National Signing Day in February, this incoming class will easily be the best in program history.
2. Upgrades are on the way.
The sleek renderings for the new Commonwealth Stadium are nice. And though putting up with ongoing construction next season will be somewhat of a headache, the payoff in 2015 when the renovation is complete will be worth it.
The upgrades to the 40-year old stadium offer a nice mix of fan comforts and player perks.
The improved concessions and bathrooms, new club seating and additional luxury boxes will make attending UK games en vogue again. There might even be a few sellouts here and there, a far cry from these past two seasons.
And the new locker room and recruiting room (complete with patio— umbrella table not included) are additions the players can be excited about. Having a cool stadium to play in with a good environment on game day can go a long way in attracting talent to campus.
Plus— maybe even more importantly— there are upgrades to Nutter Training Facility coming soon. That building is where the players and staff spend most of their time, and transforming it into a top-of-the-line facility is an important step if UK wants to improve as a program.
3. The SEC East is a madhouse.
There was only one dominant team in the eastern division this year, and just like everyone expected, it was the University of Missouri.
If UK was even relatively good this year, it easily could have had four to five conference wins. Even so, the Cats had their chances in a few SEC games, and that speaks to the chaos currently engulfing the league.
It’s as if the division is the Wild West, where everybody is shooting everybody and the law has no meaning. All UK needs to do is load its firearm, take cover behind the nearest Conestoga and wait for its opportunity. The targets will show themselves soon enough.
In a few years, who knows? The Cats could find themselves staring at a conference title in the crosshairs.
I’m not saying we should prepare for 10 wins next season. I’m not even comfortable saying prepare for a bowl game next season.
What I am saying is this: With patience, the ever-warring factions of the UK football fanbase— those long-suffering optimists and hard-drinking realists— can join together as one.