Wednesday night’s Music City Bowl in Nashville was an ugly mess of a game. Moreover, no one was surprised that the clash between the Louisville Cardinals and the Texas A&M Aggies turned into a sloppy, disjointed, and cluttered affair.
Louisville did well to rebound from a 0-3 start to make a bowl game, but in the same breath, the Cardinals defeated only one team with a winning record (7-6 North Carolina State, which itself beat no teams with winning records) en route to their postseason destination. For two straight seasons — last year due to injuries, this year due more to explorations — Louisville has not been able to enjoy a one-man show at quarterback. The Cardinals have lacked stability at the position, which undercuts the ability of a Bobby Petrino offense to function as smoothly as possible.
As Louisville entered Nashville, it didn’t just need to beat an SEC team and gain its best-quality win of the 2015 season; the Cardinals needed to gain a much more concrete sense that their offense was in good hands heading into 2016. Louisville wasn’t going to turn the corner in this game, but the Cardinals needed to at least see the corner emerge on the open road.
Lamar Jackson enabled that to happen:
— The Student Section (@TheStudentSect) December 31, 2015
The Cardinals’ quarterback still has to work on his accuracy as a passer, but Jackson’s combination of explosiveness and disguise on read-based runs — most of them to the left side of the field — regularly flummoxed Texas A&M’s defense.
Jackson knows how devastatingly potent he can be as a runner next season. He now gets a full offseason in which to polish his passing. If he can take the next few steps in his development, Louisville — having treaded water over the past two seasons in the ACC — could finally become the higher-level contender it has always hoped it would be.
The ACC needs the Cardinals to approach the level attained by Florida State and Clemson. If the ACC Atlantic becomes a three-horse race instead of a two-team competition, the league will cultivate the quality depth which will begin to change the national conversation in all the right ways. The jury is out in terms of whether that scenario will unfold in 2016, but if Louisville is at least closer to the top of the Atlantic than the middle, the Cards and the ACC should feel optimistic about the future.
After the Music City Bowl, Jackson’s performance is the foremost reason for optimism in Louisville.
A close second is this:
Louisville’s entire offense except for the right tackle returns in 2016.
— Mark Ennis (@MarkEnnis) December 31, 2015
The evolution of Lamar Jackson won’t happen in a vacuum — that’s Bobby Petrino’s big source of hope as the offseason arrives. Jackson can improve on all facets of his game with returning receivers, returning linemen, and a structure which will be very familiar to him. It’s not as though Jackson will face a situation akin to what Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott dealt with this season: departing No. 1 running back, departing No. 1 receiver, and several starters lost. The intact nature of Louisville’s starting 11 on the offensive side of the ball should give Jackson the ability to develop not just his physical tools, but his communication skills and all the other ingredients a quarterback needs in order to flourish.
Louisville faces an offseason marked by hope. The Music City Bowl did not give the Cardinals cause to sing sad country ballads.