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Breaking Down Trace McSorley’s Heisman Odds

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Another year, another Heisman hopeful in Penn State’s backfield.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Penn State Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Trace McSorley enters the 2018 season rated as the top quarterback in all of college football and a potential first-team All-American. With that type of recognition, while leading a team among the favorites to win a national championship, it’s a forgone conclusion that the Penn State gunslinger will be a major player in the conversation for the Heisman Trophy in 2018. Can McSorley actually win the honor, claiming just the second Heisman in program history? Let’s take a deep dive and examine McSorley’s Heisman hopes:

Opportunities

Let’s get straight to the point- with the way the Heisman has been defined in recent decades, there are two things that need to happen for McSorley to win the Heisman: 1). put up monster stats and 2). lead Penn State to the playoffs, or at least have them in contention until the very end of the season. The majority of voters won’t be watching Penn State, or any one specific team for that matter, on a weekly basis. McSorley will need the impressive stat line for those basing their votes on numbers, and will need to be in the forefront of voters minds throughout the year by leading a highly-ranked team into the midst of the playoff hunt.

To put it mildly, McSorley should have no problem putting up the numbers that Heisman voters expect of a quarterback. The senior quarterback has rewritten the Penn State record books and looks to leave many completely shattered after his third year as the starting quarterback. He has the top two single-seasons in school history in terms of both passing yards and touchdowns, three of the top seven single best passing games in terms of passing yards, already has the school record for career passing touchdowns by a margin of 11, and is just 1,058 passing yards away from the all-time mark.

And that’s just through the air. McSorley has averaged nearly 400 yards on the ground and nine rushing touchdowns during his first two years as a starter, which can help make his stat line that much more impressive. He’s also careful with the ball- in 2017, he finished with 37 total touchdowns and eight interceptions- the type of touchdown/turnover ratio needed to take home the Heisman.

McSorley will also have some help from his teammates. After years of struggling to develop quality offensive lines, and a few utterly disastrous seasons following the NCAA sanctions, there’s no reason to believe Penn State can’t have its line in a decade. Four of five returners return upfront, with several highly-recruited linemen ready to contribute as part of the rotation after spending a couple seasons in the program.

In 2017, Saquon Barkley was widely recognized as the top Heisman candidate for the first half of the season. His campaign was derailed, however, when defenses began focusing on him, causing his numbers to drop significantly as he was basically hit in the backfield on each play- even when the ball wasn’t in his hands.

However, opposing defenses aren’t likely to slow down McSorley’s productivity in 2018. For one, he has a stable of talented running backs who can effectively run the read zone option that makes him just as dangerous on the ground. This also means that unlike Barkley, McSorley will not be the sole focus of the offense- there’s no simple way to slow him down. Penn State has the talent across the skill positions to fulfill offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne’s vision to spread the ball around and keep defensive coordinators on their toes (just consider the stat line from Rahne’s single game as offensive coordinator a year ago during the Fiesta Bowl following Joe Moorhead’s departure for Mississippi State). And while he’ll be surrounded with a fantastic set of receivers, he’ll be throwing the ball often to Juwan Johnson, who has the potential to be a top 10 draft pick by this time next year.

There’s also the Tommy Stevens factor. As the backup quarterback prepares to take on a larger role in the offense with his ‘Lion’ position, he will often share the backfield with McSorley. This should vastly take the pressure of McSorley as defenses will need to account for Stevens ability to pass, run and catch the ball each time he steps on the field.

McSorley will also have no shortage of big games the stand in the national spotlight. Games against Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan and Wisconsin should be appointment viewing for college football fans in 2018. And as long as the Nittany Lions remain in the playoff hunt, the opportunities for nationally-televised and/or prime time games will occur on a near-weekly basis.

Barriers

The largest barriers to McSorley’s Heisman hopes could be the loss of several key players who he relied upon during his two years as a starter at Penn State. Gone is the focal point of the offense in all-everything Saquon Barkley, all-time receptions leader DaeSean Hamilton and record-setting tight end Mike Gesicki. Sure, there is plenty of talent waiting in the wings to take over, but there’s no guarantee the chemistry with those players that came over time will be re-created with the new set of starters.

While Barkley helped take pressure off McSorley, Gesicki and Hamilton both made a habit out of going up and making tough catches in traffic. McSorley will need to be able to trust his new set of passcatchers before being able to put them in position to make difficult catches that could turn into turnovers.

The losses to Penn State’s defense could be an even bigger barrier, but in a completely different way. The Nittany Lions will be replacing both starters at defensive end, two linebackers and its entire secondary. The linebacker unit is especially unpredictable considering that the team could be relying on two starters who will be in their first year of eligibility. If inexperience on the defensive side of the ball causes a couple early losses, Penn State would plummet in the rankings and become an after-thought in the playoff race. Without Penn State in the playoff chase, there’s little chance of McSorley remaining in the Heisman conversation regardless of the type of numbers he puts up on a weekly basis. It may not be fair, but it’s the way the Heisman race operates.

There’s also a tough six game stretch to consider. Penn State will take on Ohio State on the last Saturday of September, before matching up with Michigan State, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan and Wisconsin. Fortunately, Ohio State, Michigan State, Iowa and Wisconsin all come to Happy Valley, but it will be a relentless portion of the season that ends with potential back-to-back games against opponents ranked in the top 10.

The Competition

This is an odd year for the Heisman race. For the first time in a long time, running backs, not quarterbacks, dominate the preseason favorites for the Heisman. According to sportsbettingdime.com the top three candidates heading into the season are all running backs- Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor (+600), Ohio State’s JK Dobbins (+650) and Stanford’s Bryce Love (+700). However, before we declare this as a year for the running backs, keep in mind that the Heisman is still a quarterback’s award, as QBs have won seven of the last eight trophies. In addition to McSorley, the main competition at quarterback includes the two signal-callers from the national title game, who both lead teams that could win it all in 2018: Georgia’s Jake Fromm (+1200) and Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa (+700). McSorley is currently behind the pack at +1800.

The focus on running back is far from the only quirk in this year’s Heisman race. The early focus on Tagovailoa is somewhat baffling. While he was the hero of the national championship game, he has yet to make his first start. He will also be in competition with two-year starter Jalen Hurts, the 2016 SEC Offensive Player of the Year. However, as long as Alabama finds itself in the playoff hunt yet again, there’s a strong chance that its starting quarterback is guaranteed a spot on the Heisman shortlist.

Something else that could factor in the Heisman race is the abundance of candidates from the PAC-12- Stanford’s Bryce Love, Arizona’s Khalil Tate and Washington’s Jake Browning. Players from the PAC-12 face an uphill battle for a national award since they will play many games after voters outside their time zone have called it a day. So that spectacular 280-yard game by Love, or Browning’s five-TD effort may be missed and fall out of the sports news cycle by the time voters wake up Sunday morning.

The bottom line is that 2018 looks to be setting up for a wide-open Heisman race, where the ultimate winner could be completely off-the-radar for the first half of the season.

McSorley’s Journey to the Heisman

For McSorley to remain a serious Heisman contender, Penn State needs to keep winning....and winning...and winning. As long as the Nittany Lions are in the national spotlight as a playoff contender, McSorley will have the numbers to stake his claim.

If Penn State starts off strong, McSorley will certainly have his opportunities to shine. Games against Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan and Wisconsin will all move the needle for college fans and place the national spotlight on State College. With the exception of Michigan, all of those will be played in the friendly confines of Beaver Stadium. Penn State also seems to be likely to play its largest amount of primetime games in years, drawing even more attention to McSorley’s Heisman campaign.

Basically, the Nittany Lions will need to go unscathed in its first four games against Appalachian State, Pitt, Kent State and Illinois. This will set up a huge showdown with the Buckeyes, which should be one of the biggest and most impactful games of the entire college football regular season. If McSorley leads the Nittany Lions to a home win against Ohio State, it will kick off a six-game stretch against quality competition that will make-or-break Penn State’s season. The schedule closes out with games against Rutgers and Maryland, giving McSorley a chance to pad his stats should he remain in the Heisman race by mid-November.

Will It Happen?

Why not? There are many reasons to believe McSorley will be able to live up to the Heisman hype. While this Heisman race can go any number of ways, and any player can fall off the map after a poor performance, it’s hard not to get excited about McSorley’s chances as he returns for his senior year. Plus, he’s just one of those players who always seems to go out an prove people wrong. Go ahead and doubt him, and it will likely end with McSorley hoisting the famed trophy above his head in December.