The University of Louisville has never had a Heisman Trophy winner in its history. Quarterback Lamar Jackson is a rising star and is +5000 on Bovada's college football odds to win the 2016 Heisman.
Jackson Wasn't Expected To Be Factor In 2015
When you think of Louisville football, what comes to mind? I remember the 2006 team when it was still in the Big East and coached by Bobby Petrino -- his final season there the first time around. The Cardinals were ranked as high as No. 3 in the nation and finished with a 12-1 record following an Orange Bowl win over Wake Forest (maybe the worst Orange Bowl matchup in many years).
The 2012 team, in its final season in the Big East, finished 11-2 under Charlie Strong, capped by a Sugar Bowl upset of Florida. The Cardinals were 12-1 the next year -- but didn't get a major bowl bid -- in Strong's final season before he left for Texas. The administration brought back Petrino to replace him.
Last season, Louisville started fall camp expecting to redshirt Jackson as Kyle Bolin, Reggie Bonnafon and Will Gardner were expected to battle for the starting job. Bonnafon started the opener against Auburn but the offense stagnated so Jackson was sent in and nearly led a big comeback. Still, the Cards lost that game as well as to Houston and Clemson. It was the team's first 0-3 start since 1984, when U of L finished 2-9 as an independent under someone named Bob Weber.
But with that terrible start came a silver lining: the program's future under center in Jackson. Petrino finally started the true freshman from south Florida in the fourth game against Samford and Jackson led a 45-3 blowout that helped turn the season around. He threw for 212 yards and a touchdown while rushing 18 times for 184 yards and two scores. The yardage was a school record for a quarterback. Petrino said after that game he had his starter going forward: "I think we've settled on Lamar," he said with a smile.
The next week in a win at NC State, Jackson threw for 103 yards and a score while rushing 19 times for 121 yards and a TD. He threw for 230 yards in a win over Boston College, 207 and two scores in a victory at Wake Forest. Then Jackson missed two games with an injury. But few players closed the season better in the ACC.
Jackson threw for 130 yards and a touchdown while rushing for 186 yards and two scores to close the regular season with a victory at rival Kentucky as the Cardinals claimed the Governor's Cup. Jackson finished the regular season with 2,347 yards of offense to break Teddy Bridgewater's previous mark of 2,195 in 2011. His also set a school single-season mark with nine rushing scores for a QB.
But Jackson's best game was in the Music City Bowl win over Texas A&M in which he threw for 227 yards and two scores while rushing for 226 yards (a Music City Bowl record for any position) and two more TDs to earn game MVP honors. Jackson became only the third quarterback to run and throw for at least 200 yards in a bowl game, joining Vince Young in 2006 and Johnny Manziel in 2012. Manziel won a Heisman in his career and Young was a runner-up.
Looking Ahead To 2016
A lot of people like Louisville as a sleeper team in the ACC after the Cards won eight of their final 10 in 2015 and found their QB in Jackson, who has been named to the Maxwell Award Watch List. The Cardinals are third-favorites on college football odds to win the conference title at +900.
The problem for Louisville to win the ACC title is that it plays in the much tougher Atlantic Division with likely preseason national Top 5 teams Clemson, the defending ACC champion and national runner-up, and Florida State. The Cardinals should be 2-0 when they host the Seminoles and Heisman Trophy candidate running back Dalvin Cook on Sept. 17. Win that, and Jackson's stock rises. Then Louisville goes to Clemson on Oct. 1 to face off against the Heisman Trophy favorite in quarterback Deshaun Watson.
If, and I repeat if, Louisville wins both of those games and Jackson plays well, he's going to be a legitimate candidate. The Cardinals would be favored in the rest of their regular season games except perhaps out of conference at Houston on Nov. 17 and against another Heisman candidate in QB Greg Ward Jr.
Jackson already is among the best running QBs in the nation -- for comparison, Michael Vick had three games of at least 100 yards passing and rushing in his NCAA career at Virginia Tech, while Jackson already has five -- and he's been studying film of Bridgewater to improve his passing. In 2015, Jackson completed only 54.7 percent of his throws, took 25 sacks and had an interception rate of one per every 31 passes. But all reports out of spring camp were excellent on Jackson in that regard. He improved his accuracy and decision-making during the spring. In addition, pretty much every significant starter on offense is back around Jackson.
Louisville has a wins total of 9 on college football picks for the 2016 season. I believe the Cards win at least 10, and if they manage to beat both FSU and Clemson as well, then Jackson can likely plan a trip to New York in December.