How Caleb Williams’ Heisman odds compare to recent defending winners

Williams seeks to become the first repeat winner since Ohio State's Archie Griffin in 1974 and 1975.

Winning a se­­cond Heisman trophy has arguably been college football’s most elusive feat for the last half-century. Despite this, betting markets across Las Vegas currently have USC quarterback Caleb Williams slotted as the overwhelming favorite to take home the award at +550. Williams enters the season as just the 17th player in history with a chance to win the award for a second time. The Heisman Trophy has only seen back-to-back winners once in its 87-year history and not since Archie Griffin did it nearly 50 years ago.

Returning Heisman winners enter the following season as the betting favorite more often than not. However, repeating is not as cut and dry. The reigning winner usually enters the season at a perceptive disadvantage despite having favorable odds.

Heisman voters are historically partial to players who burst onto the scene and shatter expectations. For a reigning winner to retain the Heisman, they would likely need to go above and beyond their previous season in addition to not having a comparable peer.

As these trends become more notable with each failed repeat bid, the betting line is typically less favorable for the player than it would have been in past years.  With this in mind, here’s a look at five recent Heisman winners who had a chance to defend the trophy and how Williams’ preseason odds fare in comparison.

Tim Tebow, 2008: +250, heavy favorite

Nov 29, 2008; Tallahassee, FL, USA; Florida Gators quarterback Tim Tebow (15) looks to throw against the Florida State Seminoles during the second quarter at Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee, Florida. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Florida QB Tim Tebow had a level of star power in 2008 that was simply unprecedented in college sports. Coming off a 2007 Heisman campaign which saw him take the country by storm, Tebow entered the 2008 season without a definitive rival.

The eventual winner, Oklahoma’s Sam Bradford didn’t even have the most favorable odds on his own team. Those belonged to star running back Demarco Murray. Bradford, a +1600 preseason favorite to win the trophy, exploded for 50 touchdowns and 4,720 yards with just 8 interceptions. Bradford’s dominance earned him a slim victory in the voting and propelled his Oklahoma Sooners to the 2009 BCS Championship Game in Miami, where they fell to Tebow’s Gators 24-14. 

Similarly to Tebow, Caleb Williams enters the season without a definitive peer in the Heisman trophy discussion. However, Tebow was faced with not one but two challengers who had breakout seasons; Bradford and Texas’ Colt McCoy, who was the runner-up.

Tebow actually received more first place votes than both Bradford and McCoy in 2008, but lacked the second and third place votes to gain the necessary points. Had Bradford not received the most second place votes on ballots in which he was not the first place choice, Tebow’s 2008 campaign would have likely earned him enough points to claim his second Heisman. Tebow was also invited to New York City to partake in the 2009 ceremony after returning for his senior season but was never truly in contention, finishing fifth in the voting.

Mark Ingram, 2010: +380, slight favorite

Nov 26, 2010; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide running back Mark Ingram (22) celebrates a touchdown against the Auburn Tigers during the first half at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Most oddsmakers tabbed Alabama’s Mark Ingram as the slight favorite to win the Heisman heading into the 2010 season. However, he had an extra hurdle that the other recent candidates didn’t have. He was a running back, of course. It already took a down year for quarterbacks in 2009 for Ingram to stake his claim for the award so easily. Despite this, the only other truly formidable candidate that preseason was Ohio State QB Terrelle Pryor at +550. Ingram’s favorable line at +380 heading into the season was mostly a reflection of that reality. 

As it played out, the 2010 season welcomed the emergence of Cam Newton, the dynamic 6’5 dual threat quarterback from Auburn. Newton’s surprise run was arguably the most impressive single season in college football history. Newton’s own definitive Heisman moment came against Ingram and the Rolling Tide in Tuscaloosa, where he led a 24 point second half comeback to keep Auburn’s dream season alive.

At this point in time, it’s hard to imagine any real similarities between Williams’ upcoming campaign and Ingram’s 2010 season. Unless we were to see the rise of an under-the-radar superstar like Newton, I don’t expect many to appear.

Johnny Manziel, 2013: +600, tied for second

November 10, 2012; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Texas A&M Aggies quarterback Johnny Manziel (2) celebrates against the Alabama Crimson Tide following a touchdown review in the first quarter at Bryant Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Leading into the 2013 season, Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel was a pop culture sensation not seen in college sports since Tebow’s run a half-decade earlier. 

Manziel’s record-setting 2012 Heisman season was punctuated by a historic upset of Alabama at Bryant-Denny Stadium. The legend of “Johnny Football” was born on that November night in Tuscaloosa. A month later it was in full swing when he lifted the Heisman trophy at the Radio City Music Hall.

The eccentric great-grandson of a Texas oil tycoon, Manziel was the definition of play hard and party harder. He spent the offseason after his historic Heisman run partying, posing in viral snapshots, and seemingly racking up NCAA violations. The controversy almost certainly pushed Manziel out of pole position as the preseason favorite to win the award for a second time.

The NCAA finally had Manziel in a corner in August 2013, alleging that he was paid to sign a collection of memorabilia that was later sold. However, an NCAA investigation couldn’t prove Manziel accepted payment, only that he knew the autographs were going to be sold. He was handed a slap-on-the-wrist suspension for the first half of the season opener against Rice.

The rest of the season was a disappointment for the Aggies, who dropped four regular season SEC games and were sent to the Chick-Fil-A Bowl against middling Duke. That game did produce one last classic moment of Johnny Football imagery, however. Left frantically scrambling around the backfield, he ran face-first into his offensive line before managing to spin his way out of the mayhem in time to find his receiver for a touchdown lob that began a game-winning comeback.

Regardless, he wouldn’t have had much of a shot even if he did live up to his 2012 season. Jameis Winston’s domination in 2013 would have won him the Heisman in any universe.

Williams, despite not yet being the level of star Manziel was, can certainly reach and even exceed those heights if he were to bring a second Heisman Trophy back to Los Angeles. On the other hand, if his follow-up act goes anything like how Manziel’s went he will likely suffer the same fate and become an afterthought in the voting.

Jameis Winston, 2014: +450, slight favorite

Jan 6, 2014; Pasadena, CA, USA; Florida State Seminoles quarterback Jameis Winston (5) looks to evade Auburn Tigers defense during the second half of the 2014 BCS National Championship game at the Rose Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

If the Heisman Trust was looking to avoid more off-season controversy when they welcomed Jameis Winston into their prestigious club, they made the wrong choice.

Winston’s implication in a sexual assault investigation a month before the 2013 ceremony didn’t deter the committee from awarding him the trophy. Winston did his finest job in not allowing the committee to live that decision down. His off-season was marked by an incident in which he stood on a table in a campus dining hall and yelled sexually explicit expletives, and another in which he was caught stealing a bag of crab legs from a Tallahassee Publix.

Despite this, Winston was so dominant for Florida State in 2013 that he was still a slight favorite for the award heading into 2014. Even against a strong preseason field including the eventual winner, Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, oddsmakers still preferred Winston slightly.

Like Manziel the previous season, Winston struggled to live up to the year before. Florida State limped through a putrid ACC schedule, barely surviving, to make the playoff unbeaten despite a clear regression. It all culminated in a 59-20 drubbing by Mariota’s Ducks in the Rose Bowl that ended Winston’s run at FSU.

Williams will be faced with the same pressure to go undefeated and advance to the playoff that Winston faced in the ACC in 2013. One bad loss for Williams and the Trojans in PAC-12 play likely means the death of his candidacy.

Lamar Jackson, 2017: +800, tied for second

Nov 26, 2016; Louisville, KY, USA; Louisville Cardinals quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) runs the ball against the Kentucky Wildcats during the second half at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. Kentucky defeated Louisville 41-38. Mandatory Credit: Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

The 2017 Heisman trophy race saw defending winner Lamar Jackson have a similar but slightly inferior campaign to 2016 in which he ran away with the award. On the other hand, Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield drastically improved his numbers from the 2016 season which also saw him reach New York City as a Heisman finalist. Still, he was not nearly as valuable to his team as Jackson, who carried Louisville with his dual-threat dominance. Despite this, Mayfield ran away with the 2017 award without much controversy or debate.

Like Jackson, Caleb Williams is entering this season after a landslide gap separated him from second place the year before. However, both Jackson and Williams alike faced scrutiny over the quality of their conference in comparison to the SEC. Jackson would have likely needed a playoff worthy season to seriously put himself in contention for a second Heisman. His campaign noticeably started to dwindle after the early Clemson loss. If USC were to suffer a few disappointing losses during the regular season, Williams would probably need a drastic improvement over last year’s already spectacular numbers to keep himself in contention for the award.

Why it can happen this year

With history in consideration, the expectation that Caleb Williams should win his second Heisman Trophy this season is probably a bit unfair. That said, he does have some factors in his favor. Williams, like Tebow, doesn’t have a definitive adversary for the award at this point. This is reflected in his +550 odds.

For context, the second lowest odds to win the award are shared by Texas’ Quinn Ewers and LSU’s Jayden Daniels at +1000. The gap between Williams’ odds and the next closest player is larger than the gap that Ingram, Winston and even Tebow maintained in the off-season following their respective Heisman victories.

Furthermore, USC’s disappointing finish to last season puts Williams in a position where a playoff trip may just be enough of an encore should he put up similar statistics. If Williams guides USC to a position where they are looking at an imminent playoff berth when the voting ends, the field may be too weak to overcome the numbers Williams is projected to put up unless a new star emerges.

Williams is in a better position pre-season to repeat as Heisman winner than every player listed besides Tebow. Considering the performances it took from Tebow’s competition to dethrone him in 2008, USC’s “Superman” just might have a chance.