When Louisville star Lamar Jackson was announced as the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner Saturday, it represented more than a rare Heisman victory by a player not representing an old-line college football power.
Jackson’s honor also put a capper on the best year of major-college football in state of Kentucky history.
The current college football season is the first time that the commonwealth’s three Football Bowl Subdivision programs — Western Kentucky (10-3), Louisville (9-3) and Kentucky (7-5) — have all had winning seasons in the same year since WKU moved up to the FBS in 2008.
While each of UK, U of L and WKU have had better overall seasons than they had in 2016, our state has never enjoyed a better collective season from the three than the one we just lived through.
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Jackson stamped himself the Heisman front-runner when he ran for four touchdowns and threw for one in Louisville’s 63-20 obliteration of Florida State in the season’s third week.
The dual-threat excellence (1,538 yards and 21 touchdowns rushing; 3,390 yards and 30 TDs passing) of the 6-foot-3, 205-pound sophomore from Pompano Beach, Fla., allowed him to hold on to the Heisman even as Louisville lost its final two games.
For WKU backers, 2016 will define bittersweet. Western put up its second straight season of double-digit wins and claimed back-to-back Conference USA championships. Under head coach Jeff Brohm, Western Kentucky has won 28 of its past 34 games, along with two league titles and two bowl games.
Alas, Brohm’s track record led Purdue — flush with revenue from the Big Ten Network — to make the coach an offer he couldn’t refuse.
Kentucky began the 2016 season by blowing a 35-10 lead to lose to Southern Mississippi 44-35. The Cats then no-showed in a 45-7 loss at Florida. At 0-2, there probably wasn’t anyone outside Mark Stoops’ immediate family who believed the Wildcats would go on to produce a memorable season.
After starting quarterback Drew Barker was sidelined by injury, junior-college transfer Stephen Johnson took over and — showing a penchant for producing winning plays under fourth-quarter pressure — directed the Cats to seven wins in their final 10 games.
The most memorable of those victories was the final one at Louisville.
Johnson, a 6-3, 183-pound junior from Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., threw for 338 yards and three TDs and ran for a team-best 83 yards while committing only one turnover, an interception.
Jackson was brilliant for Louisville, running for 171 yards and two scores and throwing for 281 yards and two TDs. However, the U of L star turned the ball over four times, three interceptions and a game-deciding lost fumble.
That was a main reason 27-point underdog UK earned a 41-38 victory, the biggest upset in modern UK-U of L history.
It put the 2016 edition of Cats-Cards right there with — and arguably ahead of — 2007 (“Stevie got loose”) and 2000 (“The Lightning Game”) as the most memorable Governor’s Cup renewal ever.
Whether our state’s FBS programs can produce three happy endings to 2016 with bowl victories is far from certain.
Without the departed Brohm calling its offense, WKU faces Memphis (8-4) in the Boca Raton Bowl on Dec. 20.
When Louisville plays LSU (7-4) in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Eve, U of L figures to be keenly motivated by its regular season-ending defeats to Houston and UK
In the Dec. 31 TaxSlayer Bowl, Kentucky drew a Georgia Tech (8-4) team that has won five of its past six games, including road wins at Virginia Tech and Georgia.
Still, whatever happens in the bowls, the 2016 season gave college football fans in Kentucky three winning FBS teams, a conference championship, an epic rivalry upset — and the Heisman Trophy winner.
Collectively speaking, college football fans in our state have never had it better.
The Kentucky Wildcats vs. Heisman Trophy winners
With Louisville’s Lamar Jackson winning the 2016 Heisman Trophy, he became the ninth winner of the award to play against Kentucky in the season in which he claimed the Heisman.
Frank Sinkwich, Georgia
Georgia 7, Kentucky 6
Billy Cannon, LSU
LSU 9, Kentucky 0
Pat Sullivan, Auburn
Auburn 38, Kentucky 6
Herschel Walker, Georgia
Georgia 27, Kentucky 14
Danny Wuerffel, Florida
Florida 65, Kentucky 0
Tim Tebow, Florida
Florida 45, Kentucky 37
Mark Ingram, Alabama
Alabama 38, Kentucky 20
Cam Newton, Auburn
Auburn 37, Kentucky 34
Lamar Jackson, Louisville
Kentucky 41, Louisville 38
Kentucky schools in bowls
Boca Raton Bowl
Dec. 20, 7 p.m.: Western Kentucky (10-3) vs Memphis (8-4)
Dec. 31, 11 a.m.: Kentucky (7-5) vs. Georgia Tech (8-4)
Dec. 31, 11 a.m.: Louisville (9-3) vs. LSU (7-4)