Penn State will go as far this season as quarterback Sean Clifford can take the No. 6 team in the land. James Franklin is all-in on the 6-2, 219-pound senior out of Cincinnati.

It’s starting to look like the 8th-year head coach is playing his cards right, too, holding Clifford, throwing back a couple other QBs and drawing Mike Yurcich.

After a 28-for-32 performance against a ranked SEC foe in front of 109,958 fans and a primetime national TV audience, the self-professed “most confident quarterback in the country” is Penn State’s key card. Franklin and Yurcich, Penn State’s new offensive coordinator, aren’t about to fold. They’ve got too much invested now.

Less than a year removed from looking completely disoriented and losing the starting job for a game during an 0-5 start, Clifford is parlaying 28 games worth of experience — good and bad — into another push to get the Lions into their first College Football Playoff.

How much better is Clifford now than he was a year ago, or even 3 weeks ago when he did just enough to help Penn State get by Wisconsin 16-10 in Madison to open the season?

Well, with his third offensive coordinator in as many seasons directing a truly creative attack, Clifford had the game of his life in Saturday night’s 28-20 victory over then-No. 22 Auburn. He made solid reads, moved well in the pocket and threw deftly through windows wide and narrow.

“It’s probably the calmest I’ve ever been [in a game],” he said afterward. “I went in and was seeing everything so clearly from the first snap.”

Check out this breakdown from Coaches Caviar on YouTube:

Clifford entered this season with more detractors than enthusiasts among those analyzing from afar, and maybe among those in Nittany Nation, too. NFL Draft prospects? He has none. Throws off his back foot. Average arm. Average accuracy. One-read quarterback. “Serviceable” athleticism. Analyst Joe Loncarich summed it up this way: Clifford is a trailer of a quarterback who has to be carried to victory, not a guy who can lead the team on his own.

Fair assessment? Maybe, but probably a bit harsh. I will point out that Loncarich is a graduate of the University of Iowa. Perhaps a little biased.

Accurate assessment? Not for this year. Clifford must be a leader and not a trailer for Penn State to run the gauntlet of a schedule that follows this Saturday’s final non-conference game against Villanova (noon ET, BTN). There will be trips to No. 5 Iowa and and No. 10 Ohio State, and then 4 games in November against B1G East teams that have not yet lost this season.

The offense rests on Clifford’s shoulders. Penn State hasn’t had a 100-yard rusher to date in 2021. Noah Cain is averaging a mere 54 yards per game, and less than 3 yards per carry over the past 2 outings. The offensive line looks much more suited to pass protection than run blocking so far.

This is Sean Burke Clifford’s team, plain and simple.

James Franklin doesn’t need an NFL prospect under center, he just needs Clifford to keep being the solid dual-threat college quarterback he’s been over the past 3 weeks: 71.3 completion percentage, 252.3 ypg, 4 TDs, 1 INT; 31.7 rushing ypg on 4.3 ypc.

A fair analysis of Clifford so far in 2021: Poised in the pocket, protects the ball, makes good decisions, runs effectively when necessary, has won the trust of teammates and staff, true team leader.

“He’s taken some criticism, so I’m super happy for him,” Franklin said after the Auburn game. “Tough-minded guy. He’s physically tough. He made the plays that he should have made today. But I also thought he made a couple plays — the play that he extended [by moving in the pocket to buy time] and threw it in the back of the end zone, I thought that was a big-time play. … His preparation should lead to this. That’s not how the world works. Life isn’t [always] fair. But for him right now, his preparation is leading toward success. … He is a great example for our program.”

There’s no guarantee it won’t get ugly again for Clifford and the Lions, but they’re sitting pretty in the Big Ten right now. He may be the league’s best overall quarterback; they may be its best team.

You scoff? Well, here’s the quarterback situation in the B1G:

  • At Indiana, Michael Penix Jr. looks like he needs a rest.
  • At Wisconsin, some fans are lamenting the transfer of Jack Coan as they wait for super recruit Graham Mertz to blossom.
  • At Nebraska, most folks other than Scott Frost have seen enough of Adrian Martinez. To his credit, the fourth-year starter has played well after a shaky opening loss to Illinois. But Nebraska has lost 18 of his 31 career starts.
  • At Iowa, Spencer Petras, despite a 9-game winning streak as the starter, gets little love. In our weekly Saturday Tradition B1G QB ratings, we didn’t have him in the top 10 entering Week 2 or Week 3. Talk about a trailer of a QB? Kirk Ferentz has one, and seems to be fine with that.
  • At Michigan, Jim Harbaugh seems intent to run the ball 90 percent of the time and probably isn’t starting his most talented QB at the moment. Cade McNamara is holding off true freshman JJ McCarthy for now.
  • At Minnesota, PJ Fleck is maintaining a run-heavy approach even after losing Mohamed Ibrahim for the season. Tanner Morgan is averaging 160 passing yards per game with a 56 percent completion rate.

So who might be better than Clifford, a battle-tested 23-year-old with more starting experience (23 games) than any QB in the B1G other than Martinez? The candidates:

  • Rutgers’ Noah Vedral: He has numbers this year similar to Clifford’s, but … um … Temple, Syracuse, Delaware. Not quite the same as facing Wisconsin, Ball State and Auburn.
  • Purdue’s Jack Plummer. Playing in Jeff Brohm’s pass-happy offense, Plummer has connected on 72.2 percent of his throws with 7 TDs and no picks. But against No. 12 Notre Dame, he managed only 187 yards in a 27-13 loss. Also, he’s the antithesis of a running threat.
  • Michigan State’s Payton Thorne. It’s hard to argue with 9 TDs, no INTs, a 3-0 record and the best QB rating in the league. But it’s early for the first-year starter who didn’t get the nod from Mel Tucker until just before the season opened.
  • Ohio State’s CJ Stroud. The freshman is averaging a league-best 321 passing yards, but also an interception per game. And he has that unforgiveable stat, for Buckeyes fans, 1 L, not to mention a sore shoulder that has some thinking he should share snaps the next couple weeks.
  • Maryland’s Taulia Tagovailoa. The stats look great and the film don’t lie. He’s connecting on better than 75 percent of his pass attempts for 318.7 ypg, with 7 TDs and no picks. He’s got the pedigree, with older brother Tua starting in the NFL. Loncarich, the NFL Draft analyst who wasn’t so high on Clifford, sees plenty of good things in Tagovailoa, though he saw some flaws too. Tagovailoa is 5-2 as the Terps’ starter, but has never led a Top 25 team or beaten one (0-1).

The point here isn’t that Clifford is a better pro prospect than Tagovailoa or even Stroud. He’s not. The point is that the he might be the best QB in the Big Ten right now, based on experience, toughness, team situation, opportunity, access to coaching and college-specific skills.

Find all the faults you want, this is a mature guy with a 17-6 record as Penn State’s starter who will lead a top 10 team into a game for the 9th time on Saturday. With a victory over Villanova, he’ll have 8-game winning streaks bookending his career.

It’s been 3 years to the month since Clifford introduced himself to Penn State fans with a school-record 95-yard completion against Kent State while mopping up for Trace McSorley.

Like McSorley, Clifford has dealt with tough times and fended off challenges for his job. Will Levis (Kentucky) and Micah Bowen (Oklahoma) transferred after last season, like Tommy Stevens (Mississippi State) did after the 2018 season and Michael Johnson Jr. (Florida Atlantic) did after 2019.

Those 4 read Franklin’s poker face, and realized the head coach was already set at quarterback. Now, Clifford is paired with Yurcich, analogous to the McSorley-Joe Moorhead dream team of 2016-17. It’s certainly a better situation than the past 2 seasons, when Ricky Rahne and Kirk Ciarrocca manned the offensive coordinator post.

Clifford hasn’t yet endeared himself to the Penn State fanbase to the extent McSorley did, but there’s still time.

In fact, there’s plenty of time. Clifford could take the NCAA bonus year and return next season. If that happens and he stays healthy, he’d almost certainly become Penn State’s first 10,000-yard career passer. He’s at 5,489 yards and on pace to be 3rd on PSU’s all-time list by the end of the season, behind only McSorley and Christian Hackenberg.

But for now, as Franklin reminds fans with his weekly tweets, the goal is to go 1-0 against Villanova. And then 1-0 against Indiana. And then …

Clifford will aim to keep learning and improving, which he’s done plenty of since joining the program as a 4-star recruit in 2017.

The stakes have certainly been raised after a 3-0 start that boosted Penn State 13 spots in the AP Poll. The stakes will continue to grow with each victory. Throw the B1G East title in pot. Throw the league championship in the pot. Throw a CFP berth in the pot.

Until proven otherwise, Franklin holds the Big Ten’s best hand, with Clifford as his ace in the hole.