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What does Payton Thorne departure say about the MSU football program?

Is Payton Thorne going to succeed elsewhere?

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Payton Thorne
© Nick King/Lansing State Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK

Payton Thorne decided to pack his bags and head to the SEC. What does that say about the MSU football program?

East Lansing, Mich. – It’s November 27, 2021. Top-10 Michigan State football is battling the Penn State Nittany Lions in the final game of a successful season, led by Payton Thorne and Kenneth Walker III. A win gives the Spartans their 10th of the year and a likely New Year’s Six bowl game appearance. 

However, a win looks like anything but a guarantee. Snow is pouring down in East Lansing causing players to slip and slide all over the field, dropped passes and errant throws have been casualties of the blizzard.

Despite a banged-up Walker III and the harsh conditions, Michigan State is clinging to a 3-point lead with a little over five minutes to go.

It’s fourth and very long, 15 yards to be exact. This is usually a no-brainer with the ball placed on the 20-yard line. Kick the field goal. 

The snow has different plans. Mel Tucker knows he can’t trust any kicker in these circumstances, and punting would be foolish. There’s no choice but to go for it.

Walker is the best running back in the country, but 15 yards in one carry is a big ask. So what’s the next best thing?

Trust your record-setting quarterback and future NFL receiver. 

The ball is snapped. Payton Thorne is in the shotgun and takes a three-step drop. By the time he’s dropped back, Jayden Reed has already found his way into the end zone. He’s in single coverage.

Big mistake. Huge.

Thorne lets it fly and his former high school teammate brings down the jump ball, right over the defender’s head.

Touchdown MSU.

Thorne would finish the year with 27 touchdown passes, the most in a single season for any MSU quarterback. Ever. He would also tally over 3,000 passing yards, giving him the bronze medal in the record books for single-season passing yards at MSU.

Michigan State has found its quarterback for the future. 

Right?

Thorne’s Departure

Fast forward to April 30, 2023, and Payton Thorne just announced his plans to enter the transfer portal. If you were to go back in time and tell Spartan fans at the end of the 2021 season that Thorne would enter the portal less than two years later, they’d be shocked. They’d be even more surprised to hear he would be leaving whilst in the middle of a three-man quarterback competition. 

On May 5, the former three-star from Naperville, Ill., announced his commitment to play for the Auburn Tigers in the SEC. 

That seems a little quick.

Rumors swirled on Twitter about Auburn contacting Thorne prior to his entrance into the portal (illegally). While no concrete evidence of the tampering has been proven, it is a suspicious situation and wouldn’t be all that surprising. Tampering in the transfer portal has seemingly gone unchecked by the NCAA.

The whole situation raises a lot of questions.

Is Thorne SEC-ready?

In 2010, Auburn won a national championship with a pretty decent quarterback at the helm named Cam Newton. Just 10 years ago in 2013, the Tigers found themselves back in the title game, losing to Florida State.

While they haven’t reached levels that high since then, Auburn is no bottom-feeder program. Fans expect them (even if it’s unrealistic) to be able to compete with Alabama, Georgia, LSU, and the rest of the SEC on a yearly basis.

New coach Hugh Freeze has a tall task and a lot of roster spots to fill after taking the job. One of those being the vital position of quarterback. Freeze found his man in Payton Thorne. And apparently, he liked him so much Thorne was worth tampering for.

Here is how Thorne’s numbers would rank among Auburn’s all-time leaders:

Single-season passing yards: 2nd
Single-season passing TDs: 2nd
Career passing yards: 4th
Career passing TDs: 2nd

All this in only 29 starts.

Does that mean that Michigan State had an SEC-level quarterback in the QB room? Was his lack of success last season not completely on him? Is there someone else to blame?

Can any blame be placed on the MSU coaching staff?

Was the offensive scheme/playcalling a reason for Thorne’s dropoff in production? In his storybook 2021 season, Thorne actually completed a smaller percentage of his passes compared to his 2022 campaign. In 2022 Thorne tallied 242 completed passes (seven more than in 2021) and did it in only 12 games. Despite that, Thorne had over 500 fewer yards and eight fewer touchdowns in 2022 than he did in 2021.

The biggest reason for that? Thorne’s average yards per attempt. In 2021 that number was an impressive 8.5 average yards per attempt, and in 2022 it fell all the way to 6.6 average yards per attempt. A pretty steep drop-off.

That could be the result of many things. Below-average offensive line play, the departure of Walker, a tough schedule, Reed combatting injuries, and maybe offensive playcalling? Could Jay Johnson’s play-calling have hampered Thorne’s play this past season?

It’s a possibility.

Does Auburn see potential in Thorne? Does Hugh Freeze believe he can unlock 2021 Payton Thorne again? If he can, that would be a big upgrade for the Tigers offensively.

Did the Michigan State coaching staff just allow another team to talk an SEC-level quarterback into leaving the program?

How will Thorne fair against elite competition?

The Big Ten is a good conference. A very good conference. However, the Southeastern Conference moves at a totally different speed than the rest of the country. Especially at the top end of the conference.

On Auburn’s 2023 schedule, the Tigers host both Georgia and Alabama. They also have to travel to Death Valley to play LSU.

Georgia is of course coming off of not one, but two national championships. Alabama is predicted to be the sixth-best team in the country (On3 Sports). LSU isn’t far behind them at eighth in those rankings. And LSU at home is a completely different animal than the Tigers on the road.

Payton Thorne has a tall task ahead of him with his new team. Will his performance this season make Michigan State regret ever putting him into a quarterback competition?

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