The return of Lamar Jackson, the only Heisman Trophy winner in Louisville history, would ordinarily be a reason for unbridled optimism. Most Heisman winners don't play another season at the college level, and given that Jackson still has plenty of room for improvement as a passer, it's possible he could be even better in 2017 than he was in 2016. But while there is plenty of excitement for what Jackson and the Cardinals can accomplish this fall, the offseason attention is somewhat muted compared to past reigning Heisman winners.
It's not hard to see why. Bowl results tend to have outsized influence on the next season's preseason polls, but it's not just a bowl loss that derailed Louisville's expectations. Jackson enters the 2017 college football season in a unique position because he is the only player to begin his pursuit of a second Heisman while coming off a three-game losing streak.
It seems impossible to believe, but despite getting a breakout, Heisman-worthy performance from Jackson -- 3,543 passing yards, 1,571 rushing yards, 51 total TDs -- Louisville actually finished the season ranked 21st in the AP after starting 19th in August, therefore coming up just short of expectations set before Jackson became a star. After the team showed signs of problems following the absurdly hot start, Louisville's offensive line was exposed late in the season in the ugly 36-10 loss at Houston and the 29-9 loss to LSU in the Citrus Bowl. Jackson got no help from his blockers or receivers in those games, and Louisville averaged under four yards per play in both. In the other loss, to Kentucky, Louisville averaged 7.9 yards per play, but the defense collapsed and Jackson was careless with the football, throwing three interceptions and losing a fumble in the red zone that led to Kentucky's game-winning field goal.
Jackson followed a familiar "September Heisman" path. He looked so unstoppable early in the season that it seemed impossible for anyone to figure out a recipe for slowing him down, and thus impossible for him to lose his grip on the Heisman. Then, he did hit a wall and have a late-season collapse that ordinarily would have derailed a Heisman campaign. Instead, Jackson defied history, as his hold on the top spot could not be broken, mostly because of the lack of viable challengers in a weak race. Had the vote been held after the playoff, Clemson's Deshaun Watson might have won easily. But Watson's diminished rushing output compared to 2015 and high interception total -- along with the late-season loss to Pitt in which he threw three costly picks -- prevented him from catching up to Jackson in the regular season, despite the head-to-head win on Oct. 1.
Jackson was beloved early in the season because of the awe-inspiring stats and electrifying plays, produced at a pace we've rarely seen. After the playoff, however, there was a sense of buyer's remorse. Jackson dominated the conversation for the first couple months and statistically was a worthy Heisman winner, but ultimately the 2016 season will be remembered as the year that Watson slayed Alabama for the national championship. The Heisman belonged to Jackson, but the season belonged to Watson.
Jackson is the 15th Heisman winner to return the season after winning the award. Of the 14 who have done it before him, 10 have finished in the top six of the Heisman vote again (Archie Griffin is the only one to repeat) and four ended up out of the running altogether. Meanwhile, 13 of the 14 returning winners were on teams that were in the top 10 of the first AP poll the next season (preseason polls began in 1950), according to Sports Reference. The only Heisman winner to start the next season outside the top 10 was BYU's Ty Detmer, whose Cougars opened ranked No. 19 in 1991 and finished 8-3-2. While only three returning Heisman winners (Matt Leinart, Mark Ingram and Jameis Winston) have been on a team ranked as the preseason No. 1, it's not surprising that nearly all have had high expectations.
This chart shows Heisman winners who returned the next season, their finish in the next Heisman vote, their teams' preseason AP rankings and their teams' final AP rankings
Louisville will surely end up on the lower end of those teams, perhaps joining BYU as the only ones with the returning Heisman winner to start outside the top 10. Sports on Earth's early 2017 rankings in January placed Louisville No. 11. An SB Nation composite ranking of various outlets' January rankings had the Cardinals 16th. SportsBook's national championship odds place Louisville tied for eighth, and the Cardinals are not included in Phil Steele's typically accurate projection of what the AP preseason top 10 will look like.
Thus, the Cardinals enter their spring scrimmage on Saturday in a somewhat unusual position. This will be the first public glimpse of the 2017 version of the team that dazzled us as a playoff contender for much of last season, only for it to fall flat on its face at the end of the season. While a presumed top-20 preseason ranking means that Louisville will have some of the highest expectations in school history -- it has appeared in the preseason AP poll only seven times, never higher than No. 9 -- it is unlikely to be viewed as the national championship contender that most teams with reigning Heisman winners are.
Instead of talking about how unstoppable Jackson is and how dangerous Louisville is, the storylines surrounding the Cardinals are focused on whether what went wrong can be fixed: Can the offensive line stop being a liability? Can the receivers be more consistent (with the top three pass catchers gone)? Can Jackson become a more refined passer, making another leap like he did last offseason? That's all on top of the defense losing stars DeAngelo Brown, Keith Kelsey, Devonte Fields and Josh Harvey-Clemons, plus coordinator Todd Grantham.
Winning two Heismans is nearly impossible, partly because it's so hard to live up to the expectations set when the first Heisman is won. Thus, Jackson must overcome both the comparisons to last year's jaw-dropping stats as well as the backlash to how he and Louisville finished the season. Then again, unlike most returning Heisman winners, Jackson's team will have a chance to exceed expectations, because offseason hype resides elsewhere, including division rivals Clemson, coming off a national title, and Florida State, widely viewed as a frontrunner in 2017.
Of the 82 Heisman winners, eight have been on teams that lost four or more games, including Louisville's 9-4 record. Jackson is one of just four to be on a team that went on a losing streak of at least three games, joining Tim Brown, John David Crow and Paul Hornung (who, famously, was on a 2-8 Notre Dame team). Perhaps the situation most analogous to Jackson was 1950 winner Vic Janowicz at Ohio State. Janowicz won the Heisman despite the fact that Ohio State, like Louisville last season, lost its last two regular-season games. The next season, with Janowicz back, the Buckeyes were ranked No. 3 in the preseason AP poll, only to finish 4-3-2, with Janowicz falling out of the 1951 Heisman picture.
It's rare that a Heisman winner can enter the next season with a chip on his shoulder. Few Heisman Trophy winners get a chance to make a play for the award again, but after winning as a sophomore, Jackson has at least one more season left at Louisville to refine his game, show that he can be a more accurate passer and try to finish the job at the Cardinals started in the first half of last season.
Jackson and Louisville find themselves in a position with something to prove, making this the rare case where the Heisman encore is just as fascinating as the original pursuit.