ORLANDO, Fla. — Everyone knows what a tumultuous 2016 it’s been for LSU: firings, hirings, the off-again/on-again/gone-to-the-NFL saga of one Leonard Fournette, plus the off-the-field traumas that have impacted so many in our community.
It hasn’t exactly been quiet at Louisville, either, where a year of huge accomplishments and great promise has been tinged by near calamities and oddities as well.
First, there was Louisville’s offense and the quarterback that led it, sophomore Lamar Jackson, who rolled up an astonishing amount of yards passing and rushing (4,928) and touchdowns (51) en route to becoming the youngest Heisman Trophy winner ever.
But Jackson’s great achievement nearly led (indirectly) to a terrible tragedy for Louisville football. In the early hours of Dec. 11 following his Heisman presentation the night before, Louisville linebackers James Hearns and Henry Famurewa were shot during a fight at a Heisman celebration party at an apartment complex near the Louisville campus.
At least, they were reportedly shot — Hearns in the elbow, Famurewa in the foot and arm. Louisville has so far refused to acknowledge publicly that two of its players were involved, though it did announce that both have been ruled out for Friday's Citrus Bowl.
Hearns has been at practice with his arm in a sling, Famurewa on one of those walking scooters. Whether Louisville coach Bobby Petrino will provide more insight into their status at the head coaches’ news conference Friday, on the eve of the game, isn't certain.
Then there was Louisville’s connection to the most bizarre story of this or any college football season in recent memory, what the website SBNation.com called “the football espionage caper of the century.”
We’re talking, of course, about “Wakeyleaks,” the revelation late this season that former Wake Forest assistant coach and now former Wake Forest football radio analyst Tommy Elrod supplied game-plan information to opponents over the last three seasons. Those opponents: Virginia Tech in 2014 and Army and Louisville this season.
For Louisville’s part, Elrod was once co-passing game coordinator at Wake (who has co-passing game coordinators?) in 2011 and 2012 with first-year Louisville co-offensive coordinator Lonnie Galloway.
After a what’s-the-big-deal statement by Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich that left the program drawn and quartered by the national media, Louisville suspended Galloway for the Citrus Bowl. Louisville (and Virginia Tech) were also fined $25,000 by the Atlantic Coast Conference, which somehow computed the maximum penalty for being involved in such an outlandishly unusual scheme.
(By the way, Galloway and co-offensive coordinator Chris Klenakis each make $607,500. Incoming LSU offensive coordinator Matt Canada, who won’t call plays in the Citrus Bowl, is expected to make more than $1 million in 2017.)
The questions from an LSU perspective are how much the losses of Galloway, Hearns and Famurewa will impact the Cardinals in Saturday’s game.
Neither Galloway nor Klenakis calls plays for Louisville, a task that Petrino (who supposedly knew nothing of Elrod’s weird Wakeyleaks offer) handles himself. Galloway basically serves as wide receivers coach, while Klenakis coaches the offensive line.
Defensively, losing Hearns is a blow, similar to LSU being without middle linebacker Kendell Beckwith. Hearns, who started every game, is seventh on the team with 43 tackles and leads the Cardinals with eight sacks. Famurewa (10 tackles in nine games) played a backup role. Jonathan Greenard (17 tackles) is expected to start in Hearns’ place.
Then there’s the matter of trying to decipher how much this game may or may not mean to the Cardinals. After a 9-1 start with only a narrow 42-36 loss Oct. 1 at Clemson, Louisville was No. 5 in the CFP rankings with two regular season games to go.
With No. 3 Michigan ahead of them eventually losing to Ohio State, had the Cardinals won out they had an argument to make the College Football Playoff over teams like Washington and Penn State.
Instead of forcing the CFP to make the hard choice, the Cardinals flopped. Jackson was sacked 11 times — yes, 11 times — in a sobering 36-10 loss at Houston. Then Louisville was shocked at home in a rivalry game loss to Kentucky, 41-38.
The Cardinals ended up getting edged out of a trip to the Orange Bowl by Florida State, a team it throttled 63-20 on Sept. 17 but which finished the season with a four-win closing kick.
“I want to win,” Jackson said. “My team wants to win. We’ve got seniors leaving, my brothers leaving. We’ve got to let them leave on top. I still mad about those last two games, so we’ve got to get right.”
For the Cardinals, there’s a lot that went right, and a lot to get right after this season.