Penn State’s College Football Playoff Hopes Rest on the Shoulders of Sean Clifford

It’s not often that we gaze into the college football crystal ball and accurately predict the future. But in the case of the Penn State Nittany Lions, the future seems suspiciously clear. A more potent and efficient passing attack could be all the Blue & White need to reach the College Football Playoff.

 

The 2020 season is less than 200 days away and it’s looking quite optimistic for the Nittany Lions. For the past couple seasons head coach James Franklin has had Penn State knocking on the doorstep, but this appears to be the year his squad can finally knock the door down.

In order to do so, they will need much improved play from their starting quarterback. Sean Clifford wasn’t disappoint in his first season, especially when comparing him to current Baltimore Ravens quarterback and Penn State legend, Trace McSorley. But for Clifford, the season was a tale of two halves, a lot of which can be credited to his diminishing health as the season went along.

No.14 started the season on fire, with a passing rating of 185.6. That rating dropped to 145.0 in October, and 113.4 in November. In fairness, a lot of his early success was due to the lack of talent he faced at the beginning of the season, most notably Idaho and Maryland. It was expected to drop when Penn State reached the meat of their schedule.

In total, Clifford threw for 2654 yards, on 319 passes (8.3 yds/att) for 23 TDs and 7 Ints. His overall passing rating was 148.5. All things considered, Clifford was in the middle of the Big Ten in most statistics when it was all said and done. With a tough road schedule, lack of production at the receiving position, and a ton of bumps and bruises, most fans would consider the performance a solid “B average”.

Overall, Sean Clifford showed his toughness, that he was faster than we thought, and he is willing to do whatever it takes to win games. He also displayed inaccuracy, unexplainable lags in concentration (that interception against Memphis), and a tendency to be over-zealous at the beginning of games.

Finally, one other point about his 2019 campaign was the dramatic difference between Clifford when he was away from Beaver Stadium and when he was in Happy Valley. The gunslinger only threw one interception in front of his home crowd, but threw six interceptions on the road/neutral field.

The good news for Penn State? The Nittany Lions get Iowa, Ohio State, and Michigan State at home, all three are incredibly difficult places to win on the road. The bad news? The Nittany Lions still have to travel to Blacksburg, VA to play Virginia Tech, Michigan, and Nebraska, all three of which are difficult places to win even with question marks surrounding their programs.

There is no doubt that if the Nittany Lions can put together a one-loss regular season, reserving the right the loss is a non-blowout, they will have a favorable chance to reach the College Football Playoff. But it’s going to take a much more complete season from their big blue dog (Clifford).

First of all, Sean Clifford is going to have to stay healthy. The past two seasons have seen a Penn State quarterback banged up before reaching the final month of the season. Under the new offensive coordinator, Kirk Ciarrocca, expect Clifford to be kept upright more often. Ciarrocca is coming from Minnesota, where his quarterback, Tanner Morgan, threw for 30 TDs and 7 INTs along with over 3000 passing yards. Additionally, the Golden Gophers utilized Seth Green as a battering ram in short yardage situations–29 rushes for 99 yards, but 5 TDs. I fully expect Will Levis to accept this role for the Nittany Lions. This should alleviate some of the rushes for Clifford.

Most importantly, Sean Clifford is going to need help on the perimeter. Penn State’s returning receiver is Jahan Dotson, who caught a depressing 27 balls for 488 yards and 5 TDs. After him? Daniel George is second on the team with nine catches. It’s safe to say Penn State is hurting at their receiving corps especially with the departure of former five-star receiver Justin Shorter and KJ Hammier to the NFL Draft. Expect numerous redshirt freshmen and true freshmen to make an immediate impact. Look out for redshirt John Dunmore and true freshman, KeAndre Lambert.

The two biggest reasons why Sean Clifford can lead the Nittany Lions to the College Football Playoff is the return of tight end ,Pat Freiermuth and the stable of blue-chip running backs. Unlike past Franklin-led teams, this team will be able to punish people by running the football. They finally have a plethora of elite and hungry running backs that will be hitting holes opened up by 4.5 returning offensive linemen (Miranda and Thorpe split time at guard last year, but both will start this season). Therefore, Penn State won’t need to rely on a Joe Burrow-like game from Sean Clifford, they will just need him to make a couple big throws a game to keep the defense honest and find a way to win those 3rd and Mediums more times than not–a tight end like Pat should help a bunch.

The defense led by Micah Parsons, should take care of the rest.

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