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Proof that Lamar Jackson’s 2017 has been even better than his Heisman-winning 2016

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This guy absolutely better be a Heisman finalist again.

Louisville v Florida State Photo by Michael Chang/Getty Images

1. Big Play watch: Lamar edition

You know who has a pretty exciting, young quarterback you should pay attention to? Louisville!

This Lamar Jackson fellow, an upstart from Pompano Beach, Fla., had himself quite a game against Virginia, throwing for 195 yards and three touchdowns while rushing for 147 and another score. The Cardinals clinched bowl eligibility with a 17-point win over the six-win Cavaliers.

OK, yes, you know who Lamar Jackson is.

But I’m not sure we’ve ever taken a defending Heisman winner more for granted than we have with No. 8 this year.

He barely got a mention in our own Week 11 Heisman piece, which was largely based on betting odds, and he’s fallen out of the odds at Bovada.

Because of how we tend to look at college football, this makes sense.

For one thing, Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield has been absolutely incredible.

More importantly, Louisville has been disappointing, suffering three double-digit losses on the way to a 6-4 record. Because the Heisman is more of a popularity contest than anything else, we hold that against you, whether it’s your fault or not.

Still, though, what the hell?

Virtually none of Louisville’s problems is Jackson's fault. After losing defensive coordinator Todd Grantham to Mississippi State and replacing him with Peter Sirmon, the defense has fallen from 19th to 98th in Def. S&P+; the Cardinals are allowing 1.1 more yards per play in 2017, and they have allowed at least 39 points in all four losses.

The offense? It has improved from 10th to eighth in Off. S&P+ despite Jackson losing his top three receivers and three starting linemen and lining up next to a QB-turned-WR-turned-RB (Reggie Bonnafon) in the backfield.

Comparing Lamar Jackson’s 2016 to 2017

Stat 2016 Lamar (13 games) 2017 Lamar (12 games)
Stat 2016 Lamar (13 games) 2017 Lamar (12 games)
Completions 230-for-409 (56%) 241-for-399 (60%)
Passing yards 3,543 3,489
Passing TDs 30 25
INTs 9 6
Sacks 46 23
YPA (including sacks) 7.1 8
Carries 214 185
Rushing yards 1,896 1,561
YPC 8.9 8.4
Rushing TDs 21 17
Fumbles 8 8

He has lower interception, fumble, and sack rates and a higher completion rate, and he’s once again going to rush for more than 1,600 yards.

In the offseason, Louisville head coach Bobby Petrino made a point of making Jackson more of a pro-style quarterback, whatever that means. We were all a hair worried that it would neuter the electric quarterback. It hasn’t. Jackson has sacrificed a little bit of rushing and gotten definitively better through the air.

Again, he’s doing this on a team with a new receiving corps and, because of the horrid defense, a lot more scoring deficits.

The guy won the Heisman and then improved.

And we’ve nearly forgotten all about him. That’s a damn shame, considering we might only get to watch him three more times in a Louisville uniform.

You know, Week 12’s slate is pretty light, and Louisville hosts Syracuse at 3:30 p.m. ET on ESPNU. How about we set aside some time to watch a guy who is maybe only the second-best player in college football this year? Might be worth your time.

2. Give that win back

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Pittsburgh
UNC’s Brandon Fritts catches a touchdown pass
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

North Carolina’s 2017 season has been ... unlikely. After winning 19 games in 2015-16, Larry Fedora’s Tar Heels were virtually guaranteed to take a step back, following the departure of quite a few stars. Instead, because of a crazy number of injuries, they stepped backward off a cliff.

UNC entered Thursday night’s game with Pitt a jarring 1-8. They had lost close games (24-19 to Miami) and blowouts (59-7 to Virginia Tech) and were playing out the string. You can forgive them if they didn’t mind stealing an unlikely win at Heinz Field.

On Thursday night,

  • Pitt outgained UNC by 93 yards and 1.7 per play.
  • The Panthers averaged 5.2 points per scoring opportunity (first downs inside the 40) to UNC’s 3.9.
  • Pitt dominated in terms of success rate, 65 percent to 42 percent.

With field position and big plays more or less a wash, Pitt won handily in three of the Five Factors and basically drew in the other two. Postgame win expectancy for the Panthers, given these stats: 99 percent.

UNC won, 34-31.

Football Study Hall

What? How?

  • UNC got help from a kick return. Sophomore Anthony Ratliff-Williams took the first kickoff of the game 98 yards for a touchdown. As explosive returns are extremely random, they aren’t baked into the postgame win expectancy formula.
  • Speaking of random: long fumble returns! With a minute left in the first half, UNC’s J.K. Britt stripped Quadree Henderson at the Tar Heels’ 2-yard line, and Cayson Collins not only recovered it but took it 66 yards in the other direction, setting up a long Freeman Jones field goal. These two returns gave UNC a 24-17 halftime lead despite the Heels having only two drives of more than 18 yards.
  • The second half went by really quickly. The teams combined for just eight second-half possessions, six of which lasted at least 2:54 of possession. That minimized the effects of Pitt’s per-play advantages; plus, the per-play advantages lessened anyway. UNC drove at least 44 yards on each drive, scored twice, made two stops, and ran out the final three minutes of the game.

That is a tenuous recipe I do not recommend following. But UNC deserved to have more than one win when it took the field that night, and sometimes the universe’s course corrections come with a lurch.

Per my postgame win expectancy measure, this was officially the least likely win of 2017.

3. 10 least likely wins of 2017, per postgame win expectancy

  1. UNC over Pittsburgh (week 11): 1.5 percent
  2. UConn over Temple (week 7): 1.6 percent
  3. Marshall over Miami (Ohio) (week 1): 1.7 percent
  4. Howard over UNLV (week 1): 2.3 percent
  5. Arkansas over Ole Miss (week 9): 3.2 percent
  6. San Diego State over NIU (week 5): 4.1 percent
  7. Texas A&M over Florida (week 7): 4.9 percent
  8. Kentucky over Southern Miss (week 1): 5.8 percent
  9. UL-Lafayette over Southeastern Louisiana (week 1): 6.6 percent
  10. Utah State over BYU (week 5): 8.8 percent

We only get unlikely results in odd-numbered weeks, apparently.

4. Elon watch

Speaking of unlikely: College football’s happiest, strangest story took a turn on Saturday. Elon entered its game at New Hampshire having pulled off the strangest balance possible: It was 8-1 ... with a negative scoring margin. Elon lost to Toledo by 34 points to start the season and proceeded to win eight games — over quite a few ranked FCS teams, by the way — 31 points.

The rugged Colonial Athletic Association finally caught up to the Phoenix. They were decent at UNH, but the Wildcats prevailed, 16-6. Elon didn’t score until there were about three minutes left, and a failed two-point conversion ensured there would be no last-minute magic.

So now Elon has to settle for only being 8-2 with a negative scoring margin. Totally run of the mill. (Not really.)

And that scoring margin is likely about to turn a lot more negative with No. 1 James Madison visiting this weekend.

5. Gunner of the Year watch

Out of pure curiosity, I’ve been tracking special teams tackles this year. Maybe we’ll give a pretend award out to whoever has the most at the end. Winner of the award gets it named after him.

Here’s your fake award watch list through 11 weeks:

  • We have a new tackles leader! Watch list stalwart Alex Grace, a WMU linebacker, eked past the field with 11.5 special teams tackles for the season. The junior has contributed to five stops on punt returns (which have averaged 7.4 yards per return) and eight kick returns (which have averaged 18.5). Those aren’t the best averages we’ve seen, but in this case, quantity is also quality.
  • South Alabama’s Deonta Moore, long the leader on this fake watch list, remained at 11 ST tackles this week, having contributed to three punt returns (8.0 average) and 10 kick returns (18.8).
  • Your new name of the week: the rapidly rising Cole McCubrey of UMass. The freshman linebacker is suddenly up to 11 tackles himself, having contributed to two punt returns (6.5 average) and 11 kick returns (20.4).
  • Perhaps the best gunner from a power conference this year: Minnesota linebacker Blake Cashman, who also has 11 tackles and has taken part in four punt return stops (6.3 average) and eight kick returns (23.8).
  • If quality is your thing, it remains difficult to ignore Bowling Green’s Nilijah Ballew, who has racked up 10 tackles and has allowed just 3 yards per punt return (he’s contributed to three stops) and 10.9 yards per kick return (seven).
  • Or maybe you’re partial to another watch list stalwart: EMU’s Mathew Sexton remains at 10 ST tackles and is allowing just 2.2 yards per punt return (he’s contributed to five stops) and 15.1 yards per kick return (seven).

The MAC: cradle of gunners.