How Good Will Penn State and Trace McSorley Be Without Saquon Barkley?

Within this week's #DearAndy mailbag: your questions about Clay Helton's expectations at USC, Penn State's offense without its 2017 centerpiece and some good, clean recruiting smack talk in SEC/Big 12 country.
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A Texas A&M assistant coach learned this week that the Internet never forgets, and that prompted an excellent question…

From @FSU_Noles_05: What do you think about a bunch of coaches jumping in the fray when Tim Brewster got called out by past tweets?

Regardless of profession, anyone who posts something on the Internet that directly contradicts something they previously posted on the Internet risks getting called out. But in the hyper-competitive world of college football recruiting, it’s a near-certainty that person will get reminded of any previous contradictory statements by coaches who would prefer the best players come to their school instead of the other guy’s school.

Brewster, who coached tight ends for Jimbo Fisher at Florida State and followed Fisher to Texas A&M, has gone from recruiting primarily against a bunch of SEC programs (Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, LSU) to recruiting primarily against Texas, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State (with frequent drop-ins from old friend LSU). With that in mind, Brewster fired off this tweet Monday night.

Brewster was quickly reminded that he didn’t always feel that way.

The Gundy brothers, who work on both sides of the Bedlam rivalry, piled on…

Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger took it to another level, though.

The SEC’s prestige doesn’t emanate from anything Texas A&M has done in the past five seasons. Aggies coaches can’t sell their own program’s success*, so they have to fall back on the conference’s success. This naturally opens them up to ridicule. If Fisher’s staff starts winning big at Texas A&M, Brewster probably will adjust to a more school-specific pitch. He had a pretty good one when Florida State was rolling. Plus, if the Aggies are winning, opposing coaches will be less tempted to come at them. For example, rivals can’t say much to combat an Alabama coach’s sales pitch besides “Aren’t you worried you’ll get lost in the shuffle with all those other five-stars?” (And that line is just as likely to insult the recruit as it is to convince him to consider the other school.)

*If Texas A&M had great success in the past five seasons, these particular coaches wouldn’t be in College Station. Kevin Sumlin’s staff would still be there.

Twitter didn’t exist when Brewster worked for Mack Brown at Texas, but if it had, rivals probably would have dug up even more contradictory material. If Brewster needs some help crafting his next Big 12-trolling tweet, he could use actual facts instead of opinions that he mislabeled as facts. This story from last August is full of such facts. They make the case he was trying to make, and they don’t leave much room for comebacks.

From Bryan: How do you think Trace McSorley will do without Saquon Barkley by his side?

This season will provide an excellent measuring stick for James Franklin’s recruiting at Penn State. It also should give us an idea of just how good McSorley—one of the nation’s top returning quarterbacks—really is. You’ll see this a lot during the run-up to the NFL draft, but Barkley is pretty much the perfect back for this era of offense. He’s fast. He’s freakishly strong. He’s a patient runner who can accelerate quickly once he decides where he’s going. He’s dynamic as a receiver. But he also isn’t the only playmaker Penn State is losing. The Nittany Lions also must replace tight end Mike Gesicki and receiver DaeSean Hamilton. Meanwhile, offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead left to become Mississippi State’s head coach.

Most teams would suffer mightily after losing that much skill talent. I don’t think Penn State will, and the biggest reason is McSorley. McSorley transitioned from gunslinger (9.3 yards per attempt, 57.9 completion percentage in 2016) to efficient manager (8.4 yards per attempt, 66.5 completion percentage in ’17), and now he’ll have the chance to marry the best aspects of his on-field personality in his third season as the starter. We saw at the end of the Iowa game last year what McSorley can do when his team absolutely needs him to deliver. If McSorley puts it all together and emerges as a senior quarterback who can complete 65% of his passes, average nine-plus yards an attempt and deliver in the clutch, Penn State will be incredibly tough to defend.

As for the playcalling, Ricky Rahne has waited awhile for this chance. The former Cornell quarterback learned a lot from Moorhead, and if his Fiesta Bowl performance (6.9 yards a play against an excellent Washington defense) is any indication, Penn State should experience little drop-off. Miles Sanders carried only 31 times last season, but he averaged 6.2 yards and looks like an excellent tag-team partner for McSorley in the read-option game. Juwan Johnson (13 yards a catch in 2017) and DeAndre Thompkins (15.8 yards a catch) should be able to stretch defenses and keep them from loading the box to stop Miles/McSorley on the ground. Four starting linemen return from a group that was the offense’s weak spot last year. If they have improved, that will make McSorley’s job even easier.

Here’s the part that should really scare Penn State’s opponents. Based on what we’ve seen, McSorley probably is the best quarterback in the Big Ten. There’s a good chance backup Tommy Stevens is the second-best quarterback in the Big Ten.

From Marc: How long before Clay Helton is fired? Has the talent and staff he wants. No excuses now.

Slow down, Marc. In two seasons since being elevated from interim status, Helton has won the Rose Bowl (2016 season) and won the Pac-12 (2017 season). He doesn’t have Sam Darnold anymore, but USC hasn’t had a problem finding a capable quarterback. (In large part because of Helton.) The Trojans are poised to be in the hunt for a Pac-12 title every season, which means they’ll also be in the hunt for a playoff berth.

Beginning this year, the Pac-12 will stop trying to sabotage its football teams with horrible scheduling. That should help USC quite a bit. Last year, the Trojans had to play 12 consecutive games with no open date. The Washington State game—on the road on a Friday night following a Saturday road game—looked like a potential upset the moment the schedule was released. This year, USC has an open date (Oct. 6) and the only Friday night game (Washington State, again) is at home. The scheduling situation alone should help USC avoid situations like the Notre Dame game, which turned into a rout as one of the nation’s best offensive lines mauled a Trojans defensive line decimated by injuries.

That said, USC does need to develop better depth. The Trojans’ starting 22 can compete with anyone, but given the recruiting rankings of USC’s classes, their backups should also be quite competitive and should be capable of filling in when the inevitable injuries hit. Games against Alabama (2016) and Ohio State (2017) showed the glaring differences between the depth on the rosters of those teams and the Trojans.

Not all USC fans are as extreme as Marc on this topic, but the vibe from this group is similar to the one given off by Florida fans in the first two years of the Jim McElwain era. The Gators won the SEC East in 2015 and 2016, but fans were mortified by the competitive chasm highlighted in both those years by late-season losses to Florida State and Alabama. Those were programs legitimately capable of contending for national titles—Alabama won the 2015 title and reached the national title game the next season—and the Gators weren’t close.

The gap doesn’t feel as wide between USC and the title contenders. The Trojans need to be better on both lines of scrimmage, but given the way they’ve recruited, that’s doable. Helton’s ability to develop quarterbacks suggests they’ll always be solid at the most important position on the field. It isn’t time to go national-title-or-bust on Helton. If the program keeps hanging around the top of the Pac-12, it stands a great chance of contending for a national title.

From Jake: What are your favorite dips?

I probably should save this for a Random Ranking in a Punt, Pass & Pork column, but now seems as good a time as any. (If I do use this topic for a Random Ranking later and change the order, feel free to give me the Tim Brewster treatment.)

1. Buffalo chicken
2. Crack
3. Cigar City mango habanero smoked salsa
4. Mrs. Renfro’s jalapeno green salsa
5. Fun