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Louisville football must now face an unanswerable question all offseason

Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

Regardless of how Louisville performed against LSU in the Citrus Bowl, the Cardinals' 2016 season was destined to be remembered for two things: Lamar Jackson winning the Heisman Trophy and UofL's inexplicable stumbles just before the finish line.

Following a 29-9 drubbing at the hands of the Tigers that wasn't even as close as the final score would indicate, the latter part of that equation rings even more true. It also creates an odd scenario where a team that will return a Heisman Trophy winner who plays the sport's most important position still seems like it's going to be heading into next season with more questions than answers.

One question looms larger than all the rest, at least for the time being: What happened? How did this team that looked like one of the three or four best in the country through the season's first two and-a-half months wind up looking like an ACC also-ran in its final three games?

"We didn't finish the season the way that we should have or normally do," Louisville coach Bobby Petrino said following the Citrus Bowl. "I think that one thing that we all need to learn from it is there's a saying out there that says one of the greatest obstacles to being great is being good. And it's my fault. I saw us not working and practicing and having the same intensity that we needed in the last three games. And we got to do a better job and we're certainly going to spend a lot of time evaluating and trying to do the best we can to never see it happen again."

Petrino's response lets us know that he saw this coming, but still doesn't explain it.

What happened?

The lazy answer, I suppose, is that Louisville started playing better competition. ACC detractors have been quick to hit Cardinal fans with taunts of "this isn't Boston College" after each of the last three games, driving home the point that UofL went 7-1 in its league, but just 2-3 in non-conference games. Except those numbers don't solve the mystery, they only add to it.

With just one game left to play, the ACC has already established itself as the king of college football's 2016 postseason. Even with Louisville's Citrus Bowl clunker, the ACC delivered an 8-3 performance that was vastly superior to the efforts of any of the other Power 5 conferences.

Even more confusing, at least as far as UofL is concerned, is how the teams at the top of the ACC performed compared to the way the Cards handled themselves. The Florida State team that Louisville throttled by 43 points on national television back in September? They went on to win 10 games and take down mighty Michigan in a thrilling Orange Bowl. The Clemson squad that the Cards nearly knocked off in Death Valley in one of the season's most memorable games? They destroyed Ohio State by 31 in a national semifinal and will now play Alabama in the national championship game for a second straight season.

One of the stretch performances of the ACC's "power three" teams was not like the other.

What happened?

For even more confusion, have a look at what the teams who upset Louisville did following their wins. Houston, who looked like the '85 Bears as they sacked Jackson 11 times on that Thursday night last month, lost its regular season finale to Memphis and then got blown out by San Diego State in the Las Vegas Bowl. Despite playing in the American Athletic Conference, the Cougars finished with the same 9-4 record that UofL did.

And Kentucky, which stunned the Cardinals in the Governor's Cup game for the first time since 2010? They were manhandled in their bowl game by a Georgia Tech team that could finish no better than fifth in the ACC's Coastal Division.

What happened?

That question will loom right next to the excitement of Lamar Jackson's return for the duration of the offseason. Here's hoping the answer is discovered, addressed and driven home at some point between now and the start of September.

A version of this column runs in the current issue of The Voice-Tribune