There was more than a hint of autumn in the breeze that swirled around Beaver Stadium on Saturday afternoon. The seats were empty, the grass unmarked, the campus still in the midst of its summer hibernation. But as about a hundred players in navy-and-white jerseys trickled out of the tunnel and into the early August sunshine for Penn State's annual media day, it was easy to imagine the deluge of energy that will consume them in a few short weeks.
For the first time since Joe Paterno's last season as head coach, incoming students will arrive on campus to a team that is a relevant part of the national conversation. Buoyed by last year's surprising run to a Rose Bowl berth and the return of Heisman Trophy contender Saquon Barkley, the Nittany Lions will enter the season ranked No. 6 in the coaches poll, their first appearance since 2011, and their highest since 1999. With nine starters returning to an offense that averaged 37.6 points per game, the question now confronting James Franklin and his players is whether they can live up to expectations.
"I think that's just the sign of being a mature football team: us dealing with being successful, handling the praise and the prosperity that we're going through and handling it the right way," said tight end Mike Gesicki, one of a handful of NFL prospects on the roster, "not letting it negatively affect us but allowing it to propel us forward."
Those who tuned out after five games last season might feel as if they've been propelled into a parallel universe. It was only 10 months ago that Penn State entered halftime of a game against Big Ten doormat Minnesota having mustered just three points, a performance that generated a chorus of boos and "Fire Franklin" chants from the home crowd. The Nittany Lions were coming off a 49-10 drubbing at the hands of Michigan that came two weeks after a 42-39 loss to Pitt. Four-and-a-half games into Franklin's third season, Penn State seemed headed to its 15th loss in 31 games, as well as its eighth in its last 12.
Yet on Saturday, one of the areas of inquiry at Franklin's news conference was the status of a contract extension that he and Penn State have been discussing. (Athletic director Sandy Barbour acknowledged the talks at the Big Ten media days in late July, declaring that the school was "100 percent committed" to Franklin.)
What happened in between was a come-from-behind overtime win over Minnesota followed by eight more victories, including defeats of No. 2 Ohio State and, in the Big Ten championship game, No. 6 Wisconsin. By the end of the Lions' last-second 52-49 loss to USC in the Rose Bowl, the feeling on campus was clear: Football in Happy Valley was back.
"You see a Saturday night in State College after a big win, everyone's just got a lot better feel to them," said quarterback Trace McSorley, another Heisman contender who threw for 3,614 yards and rushed for 365 more in new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead's high-octane scheme. "Even during the week, that energy kind of carries throughout. It just builds one week to the next. . .It got a lot of fun toward the end of last season, and even the feel on campus this spring. A lot of people were very excited for the spring game this season, just to get back into football season."
The pairing of McSorley and Moorhead for a second season is one of the big reasons to think the hype surrounding Penn State will prove to be deserved. The biggest, of course, is Barkley, a potential top 10 NFL draft pick who is coming off a sophomore season in which he rushed for 1,496 yards and 18 touchdowns on 272 carries, an average of 5.5 yards per attempt.
"It's something we're looking forward to, but it's also something we're not getting too caught up in," said Gesicki, who caught 48 passes for 679 yards and five touchdowns last season. "We understand that our offensive scheme is extremely successful and has a lot of potential. We just want to take advantage of it and make the most of the opportunity when it comes."
They'll get plenty of opportunities to avoid a letdown, with their first six games played in the looming shadow of a brutal second-half schedule that includes back-to-back-to-back games against Michigan (Oct. 21) and at Ohio State and Michigan State (Oct. 28 and Nov. 4).
"Our message isn't going to change," Franklin said. "It never will, to be honest with you. Obviously, we learned from last year's experiences, and it was helpful from a growth perspective and from a maturity perspective, but last year's last year, and this year's this year. We want to take all those experiences and maturity that we gained from last year and then continue growing and evolving."