While the college football schedule officially kicks off in just one week when Oregon State travels to Colorado, the 2017 season won’t start for another two weeks for James Franklin and the Nittany Lions. As the team so often does with it’s schedule, Penn State won’t get set to defend their Big Ten title until September 2 when the University of Akron comes into Beaver Stadium.While all us Nittany Lion faithful are chomping at the bit to see Saquon Barkley, Trace McSorley and the rest of the sure-to-be high flying Penn State attack take the field, there are some question marks that remain, especially within the defensive secondary. Before the season gets underway, I want to take the time to break down each game on a weekly basis, leading up to the first kickoff, the first Lionette splits and the first chicken finger basket sold at Beaver Stadium in 2017. (By the way, if you’ve never been to Beaver Stadium, or have been, and haven’t gotten the chicken finger basket, you’re missing out. They’re simply chicken fingers and fries, and you pay more than you should for them, but there’s just something different about them when you stuff your face and try to drown out the opposing quarterback’s helmet at the same time.)
So what I’ll do is go through each game, introduce you to the opposition, break down some simple X’s and O’s, and finally, give you a prediction on the final score, leading up to a regular season final record (Hint: I don’t think the Lions repeat as Big Ten Champs this season).
But let’s get started.
The Akron Zips, playing out of the MAC, or Mid Atlantic Conference, played an up and down type season in 2016, eventually finishing the year 5-7, and just 3-5 in conference play. If you take a glimpse at the team’s 2016 schedule, they effectively beat all the teams they should have beaten, and lost to all the teams they were expected to lose to. One of Akron’s five wins was against DIAA Virginia Military Academy. They also dropped 65 points against the Thundering Herd of Marshall. They did, however, suffer two very crushing loses, losing to Big Ten runner-up Wisconsin 54-10 in a game where now-Philadelphia Eagle Corey Clement rushed for 111 yards and two scores despite not playing much of the second half. They were also blanked and beaten by 41 by Cinderella team of the year in 2016 Western Michigan on their way to a perfect regular season and a Cotton Bowl appearance. (By the way, don’t expect that WMU to run the table again this year. Head Coach P.J. Fleck is Rowing the Boat in Minnesota now and the Broncos will face USC and Michigan State on the road to open up 2017)
The Zips used two quarterback last season as both Thomas Woodson and Tra’Von Chapman threw over 100 passes for a team that threw the ball just over 50 percent of it’s snaps. Injuries plagued the unit forcing an effort by tandem but one year later, there’s a clearer image in mind. Both players return, but Chapman has switched positions and will now be lining up at wide receiver for the Zips in 2017. That leaves Woodson as the leading candidate for the starting job this season. Last year, Woodson threw 18 touchdowns to just six interceptions, while completing just over 60 percent of his passes for 2079 yards.
Leading rushers Van Edwards Jr. and Manny Morgan also both return for the Zips, as the pair rushed for just over 900 yards combined on 181 carries last year. Edwards found the endzone three times last year, but Morgan failed to score. Hometown true freshman Jemarulin Suggs could challenge the two for some carries this season as well. While he is the smallest back in terms of weight and size, his tape shows shifty foot work and the ability to explode into the second level once he gets through the initial hole. Suggs made a visit to Penn State before deciding to stay at home.
The wide receiver core is going to struggle to find consistency this season. They’ll also have to find a way to replace 121 catches from it’s two leading receiver from a year ago. Both Jerome Lane and JoJo Natson are gone from the Zips offense, taking with them 1855 yards and 16 touchdown receptions. The team is now carrying 14 wide receivers in hopes that a few of them can make an impact in the passing game. The departure of Lane and Natson is a likely reason as to why Chapman is moving away from the quarterback position. He’ll use his speed and ability to make people miss in order to attempt to sure up the outside. He’ll be joined by Akron’s third leading receiver from a year ago, Austin Wolf, who had 36 catches for 550 yards and five touchdowns in 2016.
The offense won’t be the problem for the Zips in the open against Penn State or throughout the season. They’ll put up some points in the MAC. The worry is the defense. This is a team that gave up 403 points last season, an average of 33.6 per game. They allowed 38 or more points seven times last year and were aided statistically only by the two games in which they played Miami(OH) and Ohio University, where the team gave up 13 and 9 respectively. In those two games, the team only went 1-1, losing to Ohio on the final weekend of the season 9-3. The defense really struggles to get off the field on third down, allowing opponents to convert 44 percent of their third down opportunities. This hurts the team’s time of possession and chances to win the game, as Akron held the ball, on average, for eight less minutes a game that their opponents. This led to Akron’s offesne taking nearly 150 less snaps than the opposition in 2016.
Finally, it comes down to being better at stopping the run this season for Akron. The defense was solid against the pass, allowing 2900 yards through the air, putting them right in the middle of college football at 78th. But they also allowed almost 2700 yards on the ground, better than just 21 teams and good for 107th in the country. Akron will need to solidify it’s front seven if they want to compete in 2017.
While the offense will be good enough to keep the Zips in plenty of MAC games, assuming they can find a reliable receiver to catch passes, it won’t be enough to keep them within striking distance of the Nittany Lions in this year’s opener. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Akron put up more points than many fans expect, but this game will never feel like a close one. Saquon Barkley, Andre Robinson and Miles Sanders should have a field day with this Akron front seven and rack up some serious rushing yards in the process. I’d expect to see a majority of the starters on the bench when the fourth quarter rolls around to avoid injury in this one. Akron may surprise some teams in the MAC this season by scoring a ton, but they’ll have to go into their second game, a much more manageable affair against Arkansas Pine Bluff, still searching for their first victory.
Final Score Prediction: Penn State 41-13
Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports