Football is returning to Happy Valley this Saturday, although a number of familiar names will be absent when Penn State opens the 2018 season against Appalachian State. Saquon Barkley, gone. Mike Gesicki, gone. DaeSean Hamilton, gone. Joe Moorhead, gone. Questions about the Nittany Lions are fair going into the season, but head coach James Franklin has reason to believe his team is prepared thanks to strong efforts in recruiting since his arrival and improved player development.
Penn State will have opportunities to make a run for the Big Ten title later this season, but first up is a home game against Sun Belt contender Appalachian State. The Mountaineers have been looking for their first major upset as an FBS member to pair with their monster upset of Michigan as an FCS team in 2007. Could this be the year the Mountaineers sneak up on a top-10 team and turn heads in the Group of 5 conversations?
Appalachian State at Penn State
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 1 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV: Big Ten Network
Spread: Penn State –24
Three Things to Watch
1. The Trace McSorley Show
Not that anyone was overlooking what McSorley has done in the Penn State offense the past two seasons, but he will clearly be the star attraction of the offense now after the departure of Saquon Barkley and a handful of others. Among those no longer around: former offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, now the head coach at Mississippi State. Ideally, McSorley's presence will make for a smooth transition for the offense, as he is among the top passers in the country. Opponents now won't have to sell out to stop Barkley, though, putting more of a burden on McSorley's shoulders. How will he respond?
2. Meet Miles Sanders
So Barkley is gone and playing in the NFL with the New York Giants. Those are some mighty big shoes to fill, right? Enter Sanders, who was the top-ranked running back in the Class of 2016 and the top-rated recruit from the state of Pennsylvania that year. Sanders may not be Barkley, but he may not have to be. He has enough potential on his own to keep Penn State’s offense moving on the ground, especially with what should be the best and deepest offensive line Penn State has had in a long time.
3. Appalachian State’s experienced secondary
While the Mountaineers have undergone a significant amount of turnover from a season ago, the secondary may be the best-situated unit on the team in terms of experience. With corners Tae Hayes and Clifton Duck and safety Desmond Franklin, the defensive backfield should be consistent and reliable and will look to prevent McSorley from making plays through the air as he tries to establish a rhythm with a new crop of receivers.
Appalachian State may very well go on to have a successful season as a Sun Belt Conference contender, but coming out of Beaver Stadium with a win would be surprising. Penn State does have a bunch of new players stepping in on defense this season, but Appalachian State’s offense may not be ready to take advantage of any potential questions Penn State may have. And McSorley is going to make some big plays happen at some point. For Appalachian State, the key will be to find a way to slow the game down, but the second half is where Penn State should pull away and wrap this one up if they have not already.
Prediction: Penn State 48, Appalachian State 17
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. 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.