The late Cawood Ledford used to say Kentucky Wildcats football backers were their own worst enemy.
What the iconic, long-time radio voice of UK sports meant was that Cats fans were so willing to keep buying season tickets on the hope of better days ahead that they removed any financial incentive for the university to build a winning program.
Those days, clearly, are no more. The Herald-Leader’s Jennifer Smith reported 10 days ago that UK football season ticket sales were lagging behind last year’s number (38,658) by some 14 percent.
Rather than irrational exuberance, many UK backers in 2016 seem to have adopted a fatalistic pessimism about Wildcats football that is wholly resistant to even reality-based forms of optimism.
Which is too bad. On the week when Mark Stoops will begin his fourth season as UK head man, there are some viable reasons to believe 2016 could break Kentucky’s way.
Facing new head coaches
Catching so many foes in seasons of coaching transition could — should — create some opportunities for the Cats.
Facing new QBs
UK will play six teams this season — Florida, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi State, Georgia and Austin Peay — who are expected to have a different first-string quarterback than the one who started the preponderance of games in 2015. At least two other foes, Vanderbilt and Missouri, have returning QBs who are still seeking to prove themselves as starters.
If nothing else, all the unproven quarterbacks Kentucky will face this season balances out the fact UK itself enters 2016 without a proven QB.
The recruiting averages
Using an average of the Rivals.com team recruiting rankings, Kentucky’s four recruiting classes under Stoops have averaged a national rating of 27.5.
Among the perceived “swing opponents” on the UK schedule, that trails South Carolina (19.8) — a team UK has beaten two years in a row on the field — but it compares favorably with Mississippi State (26), Louisville (36.3), Missouri (37) and Vanderbilt (42.5).
(A rivalry disclaimer: several of U of L’s difference-making players are transfers from other Division I schools and not, therefore, reflected in the recruiting rankings.)
So if you put stock in the recruiting stars, Kentucky should be well equipped in 2016 to compete in the games whose outcomes will all but certainly determine whether or not UK goes bowling for the first time since 2010.
UK is going from eight home games to seven. Rather than a home matchup against what turned out to be a highly mediocre Auburn, Kentucky will travel to Tuscaloosa to face defending national champion Alabama.
Yet, in a sense, the 2016 schedule might actually be more favorable for UK’s bowl aspirations than was last year’s. Of the four SEC games that Kentucky has the best chance to win, three — South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State — will be at Commonwealth Stadium (Missouri is on the road).
For that matter, the SEC power UK would seem to have the best chance to upset in 2016, Georgia, will travel to Lexington.
Since Stoops came to Kentucky, the Bulldogs have been whacking the Cats (by a combined 149-51). However, in 2016, Georgia has a new head coach in Kirby Smart and is expected to start true freshman Jacob Eason at QB.
The last time the Cats beat the Dawgs at Commonwealth Stadium in 2006 came when Georgia started a freshman quarterback (Matthew Stafford) and paid for it with an SEC road loss.
New offensive brain trust
The new guys give off a vibe of knowing what they are doing. Last year at Cincinnati, the offense that Gran and Hinshaw oversaw was sixth in the nation in passing offense (359.9 yards a game) and sixth in total offense (537.7 yards a game).
If you say “but that wasn’t against SEC defenses,” fine.
The pro-style attack from multiple formations with an up-tempo pace that Gran/Hinshaw use was employed at Tennessee in 2012 by offensive coordinator Jim Chaney. That year at UT, the system averaged 36.2 points and 467 yards per game.
Put it all together, at least a little of that old-time, reflexive UK football fan optimism would not seem misplaced.