The new college football season is finally here and the pressure is still rising for James Franklin, head coach of the Penn State Nittany Lions. That’s the assumption by many at least. Looking to calm the nerves in Happy Valley, Franklin has made some big changes this offseason by adding a new offensive coordinator and filling the gaps on his staff following a couple of offseason coaching carousel moves. Penn State also has a new quarterback. To say there is a breath of fresh air in Happy Valley might be an overstatement considering the talk about Franklin’s supposed job security with the Nittany Lions heading into the 2016 season.
Penn State opens its third season under Franklin at home against Kent State of the MAC. Penn State is 4-0 all-time against the Golden Flashes with two consecutive shutouts in the series. Here is what you need to know for Round Five.
Kent State at Penn State
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 3 at 3:30 p.m.
TV: Big Ten Network
Spread: Penn State -21.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Penn State’s new-look offense
One area in need of significant improvement for Penn State is the offense. With new offensive coordinator Joe Moorehead bringing his offensive styling that made Fordham an FCS power to State College, the expectation is Penn State should see some more creative playcalling that has been lacking the past two seasons. The more important key to an improved offense, however, starts up front with the offensive line. Penn State returns four starters on offensive line, and while that may not sound great considering how awful the line has been the last two years, the hope is experience will pay off, as well as having an offensive coordinator who can make adjustments to overcome any shortcomings there may still be.
Penn State will also have a new starting quarterback for the first time in three years. Trace McSorley takes the helm under center following the early NFL departure for Christian Hackenberg. McSorley should be more of an ideal fit for Moorehead and James Franklin’s offensive desires than Hackenberg was, and Penn State fans got a brief glimpse of that in the TaxSlayer Bowl loss to Georgia. This could be the most wide-open offense Penn State has had in years.
2. Saquon Barkley returning kicks?
Speaking of the offense, running back Saquon Barkley will play a huge role running the football. The sophomore has already been recognized as one of the top running backs in the Big Ten and is beginning to gain recognition in a crowded national field of running backs. Penn State may also look to give him a chance to break some big plays on special teams. Barkley was listed as a kickoff returner (along with safety Nick Scott, wide receiver Brandon Polk and star freshman running back Miles Sanders). That could be risky, as it opens up the opportunity for injury on special teams, but given how Barkley can move it is a risk worth taking if you think he can flip the field in your favor.
3. Kent State’s secondary is no joke
There are not too many great units on the Kent State roster, but the secondary should be one of the best the MAC has to offer. Kent State’s defensive secondary includes two Athlon Sports MAC First-Team Defensive players in safety Nate Holley and cornerback Demetrius Monday. Monday picked off six passes last season, so Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley must be careful when throwing in his direction. Kent state also returns an experienced starter in cornerback Najee Murray.
Penn State has a chance to be one of the more improved offensive teams in the Big Ten in 2016, but their defense may be closer to the middle of the pack than the program is generally accustomed. The good news is even a mediocre Penn State defense should have little problem stopping Kent State’s offense. Kent State’s defense will challenge Penn State to make some plays, but Penn State should manage to put this one away in the second half and start thinking about the upcoming game against Pittsburgh in Week 2.
Prediction: Penn State 38, Kent State 17
— 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.