The defending Big Ten champions open at home against the Zips from the MAC
The defending Big Ten champions open up a brand-new season with a renewed sense of confidence. If that was not enough to get Penn State fans excited, these Nittany Lions are eager to prove last season was no fluke, and now they must go out and prove they are worthy of the offseason and preseason hype bestowed upon them.
James Franklin begins his fourth season as the head coach at Penn State, and things finally seem to be coming together through recruiting and player development. Last year may have seen Penn State get a bit ahead of schedule after taking advantage of a well-timed break against Ohio State and riding that all the way to Pasadena with the Big Ten championship. After getting left out of the College Football Playoff, can Franklin and his program take the next step?
First up for Penn State is a home date with Terry Bowden and his Akron Zips.
Akron at Penn State
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 2 at 12 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: Penn State -30.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Penn State as a favorite
This is not about Penn State being the betting favorite in this specific matchup. This is a season-long trend to follow for the Nittany Lions. For the first time in a long time, and for the first time for the program coached by James Franklin and his staff, Penn State enters a new season with a target on their backs. Penn State may have caught many by surprise last season, but that will no longer be the case. One of the big question marks is how this program handles the pressure of being a top-10 team expected to contend for the Big Ten title once again, and perhaps more if things go well. This week against Akron offers a chance to take control from the start and flex some muscle. Does Penn State go out and dominate the Zips, or do the Nittany Lions hold back and have some sloppy moments as over-confidence settles in?
2. Big game for Saquon Barkley? Maybe, maybe not
Penn State’s running back begins the new season as one of the top players in the nation and is labeled by many as a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate. This week, Barkley lines up behind Penn State's best offensive line in years against a defense that ranked 107th against the run a year ago. Barkley should be good for an automatic 200-yard day with a handful of touchdowns, right? Well, as Lee Corso might say, not so fast my friend!
Barkley could very well go off for a big day to get the season started on the right foot, but if Penn State takes control early on and looks to be in firm control of the game in the second half, don't be shocked if the coaching staff spreads the ball around to some other talented running backs to lighten the load. Big numbers are nice, but having a fresh Barkley for next week against Pitt is even more important.
3. How much damage can Akron's offense do?
Penn State's defense will be pretty steady once again in 2017, but it is far from a unit that will clamp down with authority. That could make for a decent afternoon from the Akron offense, which returns a good number of starters including quarterback Thomas Woodson. Akron's offense will have better success in conference play, but the Zips have enough in the tank to work a few touchdown drives against the Nittany Lions too.
In the end, no matter how good of an afternoon Akron's offense can scratch together, it simply will not be able to keep up the pace with what may be the best offense in the Big Ten. Saquon Barkley gets all of the attention, and quarterback Trace McSorley gets his fair share of the spotlight, but tight end Mike Gesicki may be the best in the conference and this offensive line will be the most stable and reliable unit Penn State has had up front in years. With offensive coordinator Joe Moorehead having plenty of tools in his tool box this season, Penn State won't have to pull out any tricks this week and should still win rather comfortably.
Prediction: Penn State 47, Akron 20
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and The Comeback as well as hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.