UNC’s Sam Howell is About to Become the Next Sam Bradford if Heisman Odds are Correct

Fall camps have been in full swing for a few weeks now as the 2021 college football season is set to get underway on Aug. 28. The preseason odds for the 2021 Heisman Trophy — one of the most prestigious awards in all of sports — have been set. Quarterbacks Bryce Young (Alabama) and D.J. Uiagalelei (Clemson) are ranked first and second in the preseason odds. Most often, though, the Heisman winner comes from the back of the odds pack. That trend will continue in 2021 as UNC’s Sam Howell is about to channel his inner Sam Bradford when he goes from a 16/1 underdog to a Heisman Trophy winner.

Sam Howell wouldn’t be the first Heisman winner to begin the year with long odds

Sam Howell of the North Carolina Tar Heels takes the field during UNC's spring game.
Sam Howell of North Carolina Tar Heels takes the field. | Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Bradford was a 16/1 favorite to win the 2008 Heisman. The favorite that year was Tim Tebow. Bradford had the 12th-best odds to win the award that year, according to TheSpread.com.

The odds of a preseason favorite actually winning the Heisman are fairly slim. Over a five-year span from 2014-2018, of the top three preseason favorites to win the trophy (15 players total) only four ended up in the top three of the final vote, according to a study done by WatchStadium.

In 2018, Kyler Murray won the Heisman and wasn’t even ranked by Bovada in the preseason. Ditto for Lamar Jackson in 2016.

Howell may be a sleeper but he’s in line for a breakout season

Despite being a 16/1 underdog according to VegasInsider, Howell meets several criteria that usually push a player from preseason afterthought to Heisman winner:

  • He’s a quarterback. That always helps.
  • He’s experienced and proven. Heading into his junior season, Howell has already thrown for more than 7,000 yards and 68 touchdowns.
  • His team will need him to be a star to win games. Howell lost his top two running backs and top two receivers from last year. If the Tar Heels are successful, it will be because of their junior quarterback.
  • He has multiple opportunities for his “Heisman moment.” More often than not, a Heisman long shot that wins the trophy has a signature game, or games, that put him in the national conversation. The Heels play Florida State and Miami back-to-back in early October and then play at Notre Dame two weeks later.
  • He can push the North Carolina football program to a new level. The Tar Heels have always been known as a basketball school. The past two seasons, though, former national-title winning head coach Mack Brown came back to Chapel Hill. He brought in Howell and started him as a true freshman. Carolina went from 2-9 the year before Brown and Howell arrived to 7-6 in 2019 and then 8-4 last season. If Howell plays well and the team finishes the year 10-2 or 11-1 with signature wins over programs like FSU, Notre Dame, or Miami, Howell will be in Heisman contention.

A Heisman Trophy would put Howell alongside Bradford, who became a No. 1 overall draft pick


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Bradford began the 2008 preseason with the same odds as Howell before eventually winning the Heisman. Like Howell, Bradford started as a true freshman. He threw for 3,121 yards and 36 touchdowns the year before winning the Heisman. Howell threw for 3,586 yards and 30 touchdowns last season. Oklahoma finished the 2007 campaign 11-3 and lost in the Fiesta Bowl. Last year, UNC was 8-4 and lost in the Orange Bowl. That marked the first time the program played in a New Year’s Six game since 2001, when it played in the Peach Bowl. The similarities are certainly there.

Brown has coached three Heisman finalists during his career, two of which were quarterbacks: Vince Young and Colt McCoy. Ricky Williams, however, was Brown’s only player to bring home the trophy. After Howell wins this season, he’ll have another.

All statistics courtesy of Sports-Reference.