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UNC Football: Can Sam Howell start a new era of North Carolina football?

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Sam Howell was one of the best freshmen in America this season. What are realistic expectations for him heading forward?

NCAA Football: Mercer at North Carolina James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

When looking over the entire landscape of college football, you would be hard pressed to find many quarterbacks that had a better season than North Carolina’s Sam Howell. On top of that, if you look at all the true freshman quarterbacks, there were none better than Howell.

Despite Larry Fedora being fired as the head coach last November, he still deserves a good amount of credit for re-inserting North Carolina into Howell’s recruitment, even when he was committed to Florida State. Coach Mack Brown secured the deal, but Fedora played a part in laying the groundwork there.

However, there was no doubt that when Coach Brown came in, that Sam Howell was priority number one. Brown needed Howell to prove to other ACC teams that he is a big player in recruiting. The Tar Heels needed Howell to stabilize their quarterback position, something that hadn’t been done since Mitch Trubisky left in 2016.

Now we are just about a full year into the Sam Howell era at North Carolina and things are definitely trending upwards for this program, and for Howell in particular. Despite having one of the preseason favorites for the Heisman Trophy, Trevor Lawrence, in his conference, there is a legit argument to be made that Howell was the best signal caller in the ACC.

Following such a successful freshman season, what is the ceiling (or the roof) for Howell and the football program over the next 2-3 years? Is he good enough to catapult this team into college football playoff contention by his junior year? The pieces around him will have to be extremely good to do that, but the schedule portion is definitely in the Tar Heels’ favor.

North Carolina is nowhere near being in the same tier with the perennial playoff contenders like Ohio State, Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, and even Oklahoma. But those aren’t the expectations that most fans have. Normal expectations for this program is somewhere from eight to ten wins. Occasionally, given a favorable schedule and a very strong group of upperclassmen, this program should compete for an ACC title and be on the outskirts of the playoff hunt, similar to 2015.

But the Tar Heels now have something that not many teams can say they have: A game-changing quarterback. The best part about it is that said quarterback is only a freshman, giving him even more time to grown into his role as the leader of this team.

Is it reasonable to fear a sophomore slump from Howell? It’s possible. Trevor Lawrence looked like he was destined for a sophomore slump until the final few weeks of the year when he started to look like his old self. But Howell and North Carolina have the luxury, like Clemson, to coast at points in the year.

Mack Brown’s ability to recruit has already shined through on this program and if he can continue to give Howell a good offensive line and good weapons, Howell will continue to show that he is capable of being one of the best quarterbacks in the country.

The upcoming bowl game could have huge implications on how this team is perceived going into the offseason. Should they win, the momentum the program gathered this year will roll into next year. A loss wouldn’t be the end of the world, but it’s never how you want to end your season.

Regardless of how the bowl game goes though, there is one fact that won’t change: The Tar Heels have something special in Sam Howell. And the next few years in Chapel Hill could be special with him under center.