Can Sean Clifford Lead Penn State to the Playoffs? New OC Kirk Ciarrocca Says Yes
February 13, 2020 7:45 PM
by Mike Poorman
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In the CFP, QB1 is the coin of the realm.

In the six years of the College Football Playoff, the teams that make the final four more often than not have a great quarterback.

Especially in the past three seasons.

In 2017, 2018 and 2019, QB1s named Baker and Bryant, Tua and Trevor, Fields and Burrow, Hurts, Fromm and Murray, took their teams to the CFP promised land. Stars, all of them.

(Ian Book of Notre Dame in 2018? Not so much…)

It was never truer than in 2019, as the starting quarterbacks for the four CFP teams were Joe Burrow, Justin Fields, Jalen Hurts and Trevor Lawrence — the first three all transfers.

“Each of those teams this year,” I said to Kirk Ciarrocca last week, just him and I, off to the side at the end of his introductory presser, “has had a transformational quarterback.”

Then I hit Penn State’s new offensive coordinator with the $400,000 question — which is the size of the bonus James Franklin gets if the Nittany Lions get to the CFP (under the old contact, anyway; the new contract? It’s 69 days of waiting, and counting…).

“Can Sean Clifford grow into that role?”  I asked Ciarrocca, who doubles as the OC and the quarterback coach.

“Yes,” Ciarrocca replied. “I don’t see why not, right?”

You tell me.

“What have you seen so far?” I asked Ciarrocca, who is seven weeks into his new gig. 

“You just gotta…uh, uh,” he hesitated for a bit. “I’ll know better after we go through spring ball and training camp together. But I don’t see why not. He has a lot of talent, a lot of ability.”

At his best in 2019, Clifford showed an ability to hit the big play, to hold onto the ball, to run the football at a higher and more effective degree than most thought possible, to be a fiery and mature leader.

And to be, in the words of Billie Eilish, a tough guy, a really rough guy. 


At his not-so-best, especially in the second half of the season when the competition got tougher and the hits on Clifford started taking effect, the first-year starter looked like exactly that. His 2019 stats:

First five games — Passing: 90-135-1,442 yards (67%), 12 TDs, 2 interceptions. Running: 43-200. Sacks: 7-43. 

Next eight games (Cliff played six-and-a-half contests, sitting out a chunk of Ohio State and all of Rutgers) — Passing: 99-184-1,221 yards (54%), 12 TDs, 5 interceptions. Running: 73-202. Sacks: 17-81.

Last week, Franklin pointed out where Clifford, and the entire Penn State passing game, need to improve:

“We’ve got to be more consistent,” Franklin said. “That’s in throwing the ball, in accuracy. We’ve got to be able to make the defense defend the entire field.”

Still, there’s a lot to like about Cliff. Ciarrocca shared his laundry list with me — in short, Dr. Suessian sentences:

“He has a skill set. He can run. He has escapability. He has a good arm. He’s an intelligent guy. He has a lot of qualities great quarterbacks have. Now we have to get him to play like a great quarterback.”

See Sean improve.

Clifford enters the 2020 season as his fourth in the program and second as a starter. But Ciarrocca is his third QB and third OC too, succeeding Joe Moorhead and Ricky Rahne.

Clifford has been around so long, he committed to Penn State before Moorhead was hired. Clifford was the first commit of the Class of 2017, pledging his allegiance to Nittany Nation back on July 13, 2015. That was back when John Donovan was the offensive coordinator and Rahne was the PSU QB coach — the first time around.

See Sean be loyal. And patient.

How will he adjust to the latest change? Ciarrocca’s credentials are such — especially given the 18-of-20, 339-yard, four-TD shellacking his Gopher QB put on PSU in 2019 — that PSU fans should be hopeful.

The key: Not just adjust, but… See Sean grow. See Sean thrive.


Funny thing, though. When you break down the 19 different quarterbacks who have started a CFP game since it was instituted in 2014, first-year starters are more likely to make it to the College Football Playoff than the super-experienced, grizzled vets.

Of those 19 CFP starters over the past six seasons and 24 teams, 12 were first-year starters on their first trip to the playoffs. Two out of three.

Experience isn’t everything. Talent is. Leadership is. If you’re a transformational talent, you take your team to the playoffs — even in Year One of being a starter.

By comparison: 

Four quarterbacks making their first CFP start were second-year starters (as Cliff will be in 2020). Just three were three-year starters making their first start in a CFP game. The point: If you are good enough to get your team to the playoffs, you are going to do it earlier rather than later — though the greats do make a repeat trip to the CFP.

Jalen Hurts has been to three playoffs, and these four guys have all been to two: Baker Mayfield, Deshaun Watson, Trevor Lawrence and Tua Tagovailoa. Good group, huh?

Of the 19 different QBs who took their team to the CFP, five were Heisman Trophy winners and another four were Top 6 selections. That’s half, man. (Early Vegas odds have Cliff at 40-1, ranked No. 16, in the 2020 Heisman race.)

Only 11 quarterbacks who took their teams to the CFP have been draft-eligible. Five more will go to the NFL in 2020.

Of the 11, five were first-round picks (four went first or second); two went in the fourth round (Michigan State’s Connor Cook, Ohio State’s Cardale Jones); and four were not drafted (Blake Sims and Jake Coker of Alabama, Washington’s Jake Browning and Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett).

Which one is Clifford? Right now, he is in Cook territory. But…but...he has two more seasons to go.

He could go higher, especially if he has the kind of season where he takes the Nittany Lions to the playoffs. I mean, in the words of his new quarterback coach, “I don’t see why not.”


2014 — No. 1 seed Alabama, Blake Sims (1st year as a starter), No. 2 Oregon, Marcus Mariota (3rd), No. 3 Florida State, Jameis Winston (2nd), No. 4 Ohio State, Cardale Jones (1st).

2015 — No. 1 Clemson, Deshaun Watson (2nd), No. 2 Alabama, Jake Coker (1st), No. 3 Michigan State, Connor Cook (3rd), No. 4 Oklahoma, Baker Mayfield (2nd).

2016 — No. 1 Alabama, Jalen Hurts (1st), No. 2 Clemson, DeShaun Watson (1st), No. 3 Ohio State, J.T. Barrett (3rd), No. 4 Washington, Jake Browning (2nd).

2017 — No. 1 Clemson, Kelly Bryant (1st), No. 2 Oklahoma, Baker Mayfield (4th), No. 3 Georgia, Jake Fromm (1st), No. 4 Alabama, Jalen Hurts (2nd).

2018 — No. 1 Alabama, Tua Tagovailoa (1st), No. 2 Clemson, Trevor Lawrence (2nd), No. 3 Notre Dame, Ian Book (1st), No. 4 Oklahoma, Tyler Murray (1st).

2019 — No. 1, Joe Burrow (2nd), No. 2 Ohio State, Justin Fields (1st), No. 3 Clemson, Trevor Lawrence (2nd), No. 4 Oklahoma, Jalen Hurts (3rd).

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