Is QB Trace McSorley a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender? The answer could come Saturday

Centre Daily Times (TNS)
  • Trace McSorley will leave Penn State with nearly every major Penn State passing record.
  • This year, McSorley's numbers are off a bit, but he's still considered a Heisman Trophy contender.
  • McSorley and PSU face Ohio State in a showdown of top-10 teams on Saturday at Beaver Stadium.
  • McSorley's performance against the Buckeyes may determine if McSorley remains a Heisman contender.

Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley already belongs in the conversation for the best Nittany Lions’ signal-caller of all-time.

Penn State's Trace McSorley looks for an open receiver in the second half of a college football game between Illinois and Penn State, Friday, Sept. 21, 2018, in Champaign, Ill. (AP Photo/Holly Hart)

He’ll leave the university with virtually every major passing record.

But is he the best in the country? And where does he belong in the Heisman Trophy conversation?

We asked our two resident Penn State experts, John McGonigal and Josh Moyer, whether they thought McSorley was a legitimate Heisman contender. Here’s what they said.

John McGonigal: Legitimate contender: Of the 67 quarterbacks nationwide with 100 passing attempts or more, McSorley ranks 61st in completion percentage (53.8). His 763 passing yards sits 59th in the country, and his 7.2 yards per attempt average is way off from his 2016 (9.34) and 2017 (8.36) marks.

And yet, per Bovada Sportsbook, there are only four players with better Heisman odds: Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins, West Virginia’s Will Grier and Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray.

So, how is that possible? How is McSorley one of the least accurate starters in the country and also a Heisman contender?

Because the bookmakers don’t overreact to early-season performance. And because McSorley has opportunities ahead of him to shape the college football landscape.

McSorley and the Nittany Lions are 4-0. They’re the No. 9 team in the country, host No. 4 Ohio State in primetime on Saturday and still play No. 14 Michigan, No. 15 Wisconsin and No. 21 Michigan State. According to ESPN’s “Playoff Predictor,” Penn State has the fifth-best odds at 40 percent to reach the national semifinals, and it’s primarily because of that grueling, high-stakes slate.

If the Nittany Lions navigate that schedule to a playoff bid, it’s because McSorley — without Saquon Barkley, without Joe Moorhead — led them there. And that matters.

Look no further than the last four Heisman Trophy winners: Baker Mayfield, Lamar Jackson, Derrick Henry and Marcus Mariota. Three of those superstars guided their teams to the College Football Playoff. In 2013, Jameis Winston won a national title with Florida State. So did Cam Newton and Auburn in 2010.

Statistically, McSorley has some catching up to do. Mayfield, Jackson and Mariota combined to averaged 316.67 passing yards with a 68.4 completion percentage over the first four games of their Heisman campaigns.

But with McSorley, there’s upside and opportunity. And a month into the Heisman race, that’s all you can really ask for.

Josh Moyer: It all depends on team success: It’s early — too early — so it shouldn’t be a huge concern for fans of the blue-and-white that McSorley is currently right around the No. 5-7 mark.

Tagovailoa, Haskins, Grier and Murray are widely regarded to be in the lead right now. Per Bovada, it’s essentially a tie after those four with McSorley, Wisconsin’s Johnathan Taylor, Stanford’s Bryce Love and UCF’s McKenzie Milton.

So does McSorley have a shot at the most coveted individual trophy in college football? Absolutely. But I think it boils down to where Penn State is ranked in December. And, in my best-case scenario for Penn State, it’s between McSorley and Tagovailoa.

We’ll get to their numbers in a second, since stats are important here. But that December ranking after the conference championships — the Heisman totals are calculated in the first week in December — has been critical in recent Heisman history. Of the last five quarterbacks to win the award, four have played on teams ranked in the top 3. Louisville’s Lamar Jackson was the exception, and he had to account for 45 total touchdowns and 5,000-plus passing/rushing yards to earn the award on the nation’s No. 15 team.

McSorley won’t also be an exception here. He’s on pace for less than 3,300 total yards — and that includes the conference title game. So, to me, it really comes down to how well Penn State does as a team. The Heisman has evolved into an award for the best player on the best squad, so that could end up helping Penn State’s quarterback in the end.

But, first things first, McSorley and Penn State need to triumph over Ohio State. The winner of that matchup has determined the Big Ten champion the last two seasons, and it’d defy convention if, say, Ohio State beat Penn State and won the East and McSorley somehow won the Heisman over Haskins.

Team success matters here, and Saturday’s game will go a long way in determining how successful Penn State is. So maybe it’s odd to say since it’s just Week 5, but it’s true: If McSorley wants to win the Heisman, he has to beat Ohio State on Saturday night.