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Stevens’ departure opened door for Clifford to excel

Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford (14) passes to tight end Nick Bowers (83) during an NCAA college football game against Purdue in State College, Pa., on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)

There was an interesting visitor for Penn State’s homecoming over the weekend — none other than former Nittany Lion quarterback Tommy Stevens.

You know, the guy who now plays for Mississippi State, which had a bye Saturday.

Rarely will you see someone who plays for another school visit his old school for homecoming — actually, has anyone EVER seen that? — but Stevens did so, which is perfectly fine. He posted his arrival driving up to the stadium on social media but stayed out of the spotlight during PSU’s 35-7 win over Purdue.

We are in a new world with college football, one where players are transferring left and right, especially quarterbacks. While some fans might not like all the player movement, believing it’s selfish of the young men instead of being loyal to their team, I say more power to any kid who wants to make a decision that he feels is best for his life.

Given that, I wish nothing but the best for Tommy Stevens and hope he goes on to enjoy a great football career and great life.

But from a sheer football standpoint, from the standpoint of sports is a tough business and tough decisions have to be made to win, there is this reality:

Penn State is better off that Stevens left.

What Sean Clifford has accomplished and proven through five games has been terrific.

His accomplishments: He’s thrown for 1,443 yards, 12 TDs and only two interceptions while competing 66.7 of his throws for the 5-0 Lions. His QB rating (79.9) is 11th in the country. His arm and decision making have been excellent. And his running ability has been far, far better than expected.

What he’s proven: That he has a chance to be an elite college quarterback and one who ultimately could lead PSU to the College Football Playoff.

On the flip side, Stevens has been hurt most of the season for Mississippi State. That’s no surprise, either, because he was often hurt and unavailable for Penn State during his career. That’s not a knock on the young man, merely pointing out the fact that he has had some terrible luck when it comes to injuries.

Here’s where I’ll throw some guesswork into the equation. We obviously will never know, but I believe Stevens would have been Penn State’s starting quarterback at the beginning of this season, thereby costing Clifford and the entire team a whole lot in terms of development.

Why do I say Stevens would have been the starter? Look, it would have been very difficult for James Franklin to have bypassed a fifth-year senior who had done everything he possibly could do for the program at every turn.

There would have been a competition during preseason camp, the competition probably would have been very close, and it would have been human nature for Franklin to give the first crack at the job to the older guy, Stevens.

If that had happened, Penn State would still be 5-0 because of its soft schedule, but I seriously doubt Stevens would have played better than Clifford has so far. That’s assuming Stevens would have stayed healthy, which is a big assumption.

Once Stevens entered the transfer portal on April 17 and announced the following day he would indeed be leaving, it afforded Clifford a wonderful opportunity.

Clifford knew at that very moment that he was the guy. He could prepare all summer like he was the guy. His teammates could look at him like he was the guy. He could develop leadership in the program as the guy.

All of those things benefited Clifford and the entire team more so than everyone having to wonder up to the last minute if the leader of the offense would be Clifford or Stevens. Sure, there was still a competition between Clifford and Will Levis, but let’s be real here, the job was always Clifford’s to lose.

Where a lot of this matters most is looking at Penn State’s future, and not just the rest of this season.

If Stevens had been named the starter, it would be for one year. This is a very good Penn State team, but Ohio State looks tremendous and the Lions have to visit Columbus — not to mention this week’s tall task at Iowa — so the chances for a College Football Playoff berth this season are rather small.

But next year …

Whoa, next year, Penn State will have a chance to be fantastic. The entire offense will be back — led by Clifford as a second-year starter — and most of the superb defense, as well. The Lions could be ranked in the preseason top five, and the always-important Ohio State game will be in Happy Valley.

Maybe it’s pie-in-the-sky thinking, but the Lions could have a legitimate shot to win the national title next year. Clemson will have quarterback Trevor Lawrence back, but Alabama will be losing Tua Tagovailoa to the NFL. The Tide will still be great, of course, but Penn State, Ohio State, Georgia and LSU all figure to be right there in the hunt.

You couldn’t necessarily say that if Stevens started all of this season and PSU entered next year with Clifford as the unproven new starter.

I know I’m getting way ahead of things here with national title talk next year, but it’s fun to look ahead and think about what the future could hold.

Which is why, looking back, having Stevens transfer turned out to be a good thing.

Cory Giger can be reached at cgiger@altoonamirror.com.

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