Below is a brief glance of Penn State's current surroundings as compared to the program's overall condition when Joe Paterno's team defeated Akron on Labor Day weekend 36 months ago.
The Roster: Linebacker Sean Lee is the only player that will start both games. Nittany Lions who participated in the '06 game that will either start or see meaningful playing time on Saturday include Jerome Hayes, A.J. Wallace, Knowledge Timmons, Josh Hull and Dennis Landolt. Defensive lineman Tom Golarz, who is on the current roster, also saw limited action in the previous opener.
Coaching Staff: The only change on the coaching staff between then and now was the exit of Brian Norwood, who was replaced by Kermit Buggs. Norwood is currently the defensive coordinator at Baylor.
National Rankings: The Nittany Lions entered 2006 ranked 19th in both preseason polls. Currently, the coaches have PSU at No. 8=, while the Associated Press -- whose poll does not count in the BCS formula -- rates the Nits as tied for 9th.
Student Enthusiasm: Students were comfortably residing in the tent city of "Paternoville" for the second consecutive season in 2006, although alumni from years past also camped out sans the village's official title. Flash ahead three years to the present and the landscape looks no different. Outside of Gate A at the corner of Curtin and Porter Roads dwell a group of rowdy students ready to stand in the first row. A few new guidelines from the bureaucracy are in place to provide more safety, but overall, trash can races and fight song renditions can still be seen and heard well into the wee hours of the morning.
Attendance: The official attendance of the 2006 game was 106,505. A similar crowd is expected Saturday.
Weather: A consistent drizzle with temperatures in the mid-50s was the mainstay of the skies over Centre County on 9/2/06, a day that felt more like early November than early September. Saturday's forecast is much better, with calls for mostly sunny skies and a high in the 80s.
Akron: At this time three years ago, Zips head coach J.D. Brookhart was all the rage in the Mid-American Conference. The prior season (2005) saw Brookhart lead Akron to a conference title and a berth in the first bowl game in school history. Presently ... not so much. Brookhart is still the head coach, but if significant improvement is not shown in this upcoming season, the 44-year-old former office copier salesman might soon be, well, makin' copies. After a 5-7 mark in 2006, Brookhart suffered through a 4-8 campaign in '07 followed by another 5-7 record last season. Senior signal-caller Chris Jacquemain will lead a fairly talented offensive unit onto the field at Beaver Stadium on Saturday, a squad that can and will hold its own within its conference. Defensively, for a team whose base scheme includes five -- sometimes six -- defensive backs, Penn State is the wrong team to get off to a good start against.
Paterno: The living legend entered the 2006 opener on the heels of an 11-1 regular season that could have produced his sixth undefeated team if not for one lone road defeat that was decided on the final play of the game. Eerily, he enters this Akron opener with literally the exact same story.
Predictions: At the 2006 Big Ten preseason media luncheon, Ohio State was picked to win the conference and Michigan was tabbed the second-best team followed by Iowa. Nothing has changed atop the league for this season, as the Buckeyes were again selected as the early favorite. This year, though, the second and third spots were predicted as Penn State and Michigan State, respectively.
Big Ten Coaches: Without a doubt, this is the area that has undergone the most drastic changes since PSU last faced Akron. Longtime Nittany Lion nemesis Lloyd Carr retired after the 2007 season and was replaced by Rich Rodriguez, who floundered in his first season at Michigan with a 3-9 record. Staying within the state of Michigan, the Spartans replaced John L. Smith with Mark Dantonio, a very talented defensive-minded coach who has already paid dividends in East Lansing. At around the same time, the University of Minnesota ousted Glen Mason and brought in Tim Brewster.
Three years ago at this time in the conference landscape, the coaching fraternity was mourning the loss of one of its own after former Northwestern coach Randy Walker passed away. Tragically, it happened again since. Terry Hoeppner, a wonderful human being, lost his battle with brain cancer in 2007 and Bill Lynch took over. Lynch is entering his third season as the head coach of the Hoosiers.
And finally, the aforementioned Carr was not the only Big Ten coach to retire over the past three years. Purdue's Joe Tiller called it quits after last season -- Danny Hope is now in charge of the Boilermakers.
State College/University Park: Since Akron's last visit, Penn State has moved up one ranking position in (to some folks) the most scrutinized of all polls. Deemed as the No. 2 "party school" for the 2006-07 academic year, PSU president Graham Spanier was surely thrilled to hear the recent news that the university now checks in at the top of that list. A more meaningful exchange of one ranking spot hasn't occurred since PSU dropped from No. 1 to No. 2 after a 63-14 victory over Ohio State in 1994. Yes, a 63-14 victory.
In another notable local change, a large portion of Penn State's Dickinson School of Law is now located on the UP campus. While tailgating near the stadium on Saturday morning, look toward College Heights and check out the gorgeous new building that looks more like a futuristic NASA shuttle hub than a law school.
Finally, the longtime nonchalant practice of non-students being admitted into the stadium's student section with a student ticket will be much more difficult -- if not impossible -- this season and beyond. The institution of the new Student Ticket Account Management online module restricts the buying/selling/exchanging of student tickets to and with other students. Alumni and other non-students that approach this with a "we hear the same story every year" mantra will be surprised to find that this actually is the beginning of a new era for admittance into the student gates.
Final Score: The 34-16 victory by the Lions in Anthony Morelli's starting debut was less than breathtaking and did not provide the proper footing for the following week's trip to South Bend, where Penn State could've won if not for many early mental mistakes.
This year's squad will most likely also emerge from the gate slowly, with several new players along the offensive line and in the defensive backfield against an Akron team that conversely returns an abundance of starters.
Offensively, Penn State won't reveal much to future conference opponents while the revamped defense will be vulnerable to early points until the unit overcomes the butterflies that accompany the opening quarter of a new season. Look for Evan Royster to top 100 yards on the ground, Daryll Clark to play pitch-and-catch with many different targets across the field and the defense to settle in after a shaky start in a victory that will slightly eclipse the 27 points given to the Zips.