STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — For the third straight year, College GameDay has invaded Penn State’s campus.

It’s the eighth time overall that the ESPN show will broadcast from Happy Valley, and even though it’s become commonplace for the show to visit Penn State over the past few years, it’s still special to the cast.

“I love coming to places that love college football,” ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said Friday. “We’re spoiled with the show and the game I call because typically it’s a huge game, and so when I hear the beginning of the year there’s a chance for us to get to the White Out, it’s one of the weekends I circle.”

The undefeated Nittany Lions will host Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan Wolverines on Saturday night in the annual White Out game, and outside of the town itself, it’s the biggest reason the show has continued to return to Happy Valley.

“It’s the best atmosphere, for me, in college football,” Herbstreit said. “It’s just something about, not just the noise, but the energy and the pride that’s within the stadium that night. It just feels like family. It feels like community.”

“It’s one of the best spectacles in college football,” College GameDay host Rece Davis added. “Everybody does some color out. For whatever reason, it’s different here. It is cool. It’s what separates college football from other sports.”

But Penn State has been doing a full-stadium White Out game each year for more than a decade. The atmosphere itself can’t bring the show each year. There has to be winning football, as well. Herbstreit, who will be in the booth doing color commentary for the game, is aware of how quickly the Penn State program has progressed under James Franklin.

“I think Penn State is trending in a really good direction,” Herbstreit said. “Anytime you can lose Saquon Barkley and you can lose Trace McSorley, not to mention many other names, and continue to play at a high level, as a Penn State fan, I would take a step back and appreciate where the program is.”

Five years ago, ESPN College GameDay hosts Lee Corso, left, and Kirk Herbstreit conferred during the telecast from The Junction before Mississippi State played Auburn.
Rogelio V. Solis / AP
Five years ago, ESPN College GameDay hosts Lee Corso, left, and Kirk Herbstreit conferred during the telecast from The Junction before Mississippi State played Auburn.

Part of the reason there hasn’t been a drop-off without Barkley and McSorley this season, both Herbstreit and Davis acknowledged, is the strength of the defense.

“Right now, they’re one of the top defenses in the country,” Herbstreit said. “I just love that they attack. They have a very aggressive unit up front — great linebacker unit. I’d put Penn State’s defense up there with the best in the country.”

Behind the strength of the defense and a young, but improving offense, the hopes for the 2019 Penn State season have begun to rise in recent weeks. But there are still a handful of challenges left on the Nittany Lions’ schedule — one in particular at Ohio State in late November that could decide who wins the Big Ten East — that will likely define their season.

“Everybody’s kind of maneuvering themselves for conference championships, which kind of leads to a possible bid to the playoff,” Herbstreit said. “Penn State’s doing everything they’ve needed to do to give themselves a good chance. There’s some big, big games ahead of them, beginning this weekend. Opportunities are going to be out there.”