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Burning questions: Is Sean Clifford good enough?

Photo by Penn State Athletics: Sean Clifford

It’s summer, it’s hot outside, but this is a good time to get into the hot topics Penn State fans need to know about for football season this fall. This is part  of our ongoing Burning Questions series, in which we will tackle the biggest issues for the Nittany Lions.

We have a list of great topics we’ll dive into in the coming days and weeks. Additionally, if fans have any Burning Questions of your own, pass them along in the comments below or on social media, and we may add your topic to our list.

Today: Is Sean Clifford good enough?

OK, good enough for what, exactly? This is a somewhat vague question, but it’s really all encompassing.

Whatever goals you have for this year’s Penn State football team — from College Football Playoff berth, to return to prominence following a 4-5 season, to anywhere in between — is Clifford a good enough quarterback to achieve those goals?

The answer here is … no.

PODCAST: Listen to our discussion about Clifford with Donnie Collins of the Scranton Times-Tribune on “Sports Central with Cory Giger” on WRTA in Altoona


I have long harbored serious doubts about Clifford. He is, to me, little more than an average college quarterback. All the statistics from the past two years show that, which we wrote about extensively here back in late December.

On Monday, Pro Football Focus dropped a hammer about Clifford. In ranking all of the quarterbacks in the country, PFF ranked Clifford — are you ready for this? — all the way down at No. 88!

Talk about completely dissing a guy. You can absolutely bet that Clifford, who is extremely confident to where it borders on cocky, has to be ticked off about that No. 88 ranking.

Is it warranted? Look, I have no idea what metrics Pro Football Focus uses in all of its assessments. But that site has pretty much become the industry standard when it comes to comparing players.

From all the numbers we compiled in the story linked above, they showed that Clifford was essentially the 30th to 40th best quarterback in the country the past two years. That’s basically average, which is why I have no hesitation in saying that he’s an average QB.

But No. 88???? That sort of territory seemingly would be reserved for signal callers who have accomplished very, very little in college football. And no matter how much concern any of us have about Clifford, he’s done enough to warrant a much higher ranking, in my opinion.

OK, so here’s where we’re at.

Clifford is better than No. 88, but probably not better than, say, No. 30. He was, remember, benched last year at one point after being a turnover machine early in the season.

Is that good enough for Penn State?

The Lions compete in the Big Ten East. Against Ohio State and Michigan. They’ve never made a College Football Playoff. They’ve come close a couple of times. They hope to finish in the top 10 every year. They have the No. 2 recruiting class in the nation this year.

Expectations are obviously very high for the PSU program, and therefore, expectations should be extremely high for the quarterback of the program.

For Penn State to achieve its goals, it cannot have the No. 30 or 40 QB in the country. It certainly cannot have the No. 88 QB.

But, but, but … Penn State did go 11-2 two years ago with Clifford as the starter and won a Cotton Bowl. Shouldn’t that prove he is, in fact, good enough?

Not according to the numbers. These were Clifford’s 2019 national rankings, again from our story linked above.

Passing efficiency: 27th (148.5)

Points responsible for: 31st (172)

Points responsible for per game: 29th (14.3)

TD passes: 32nd (23)

Passing yards: 58th (2,654)

Passing yards per game: 55th (221.2)

Pass yards per completion: 18th (14.04)

Completion percentage: 75th (59.2)

Total offense: 43rd (254.7)


Frankly, it’s pretty amazing that Penn State finished 11-2 with a starting quarterback putting up those kinds of numbers. If anything, his numbers — and his late-season inconsistency — would tell you that the Lions often overachieved as a team given how the quarterback played.

Look, we’re not talking about being pretty good here. We’re talking about evaluating a quarterback who plays at a program where getting to a College Football Playoff is the goal.

That is the criteria we use to evaluate this starting QB on this PSU team.

Certainly, the hope is that new offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich will be able to get the most out of Sean Clifford. To elevate his game to another level. To run fast plays and quick reads that get the ball out of Clifford’s hands quickly so that the playmakers can make plays.

Yurcich, as we wrote in February, could be a winning lottery ticket for Clifford and his development. Clifford has a chance to put up some monster numbers this season in this new offense, and if he does, then no one will question if he is good enough.

Until then, the concerns are legitimate.

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