STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (WHTM) — In the midst of Penn State’s first “normal” game week since 2019, head coach James Franklin recognizes this weekend is special. Penn State opens the 2021 college football season on the road against Wisconsin on Saturday, Sept. 4.

For the first time since the Cotton Bowl on December 28, 2019, the Nittany Lions will play in front of a full stands of fans.

“I think our country, I think this community, our state, and really across our country, I think we need it,” Franklin said of college football. “Getting back to some form of normalcy I think is awesome.”

Although more normal, many things about Saturday’s environment will be new to Franklin. He’s never played or coached in Camp Randall Stadium. Plus, it will be the first time Penn State has had a large-number of fans during the pandemic.

“It’s interesting because I remember last year going to the games and watching the cut-ups and how strange it looked with nobody in the stands,” Franklin said. “A year later after watching hours and hours and hours of that film and also experiencing it, it’s not strange. It’s not strange to see the cardboard cut-outs or the empty stadium.”

In preparation for less cardboard-y fans, Penn State tried to replicate the environment of a Big Ten football game during practice.

“We try to put as much pressure on our guys as we possibly can in practice,” Franklin said. “If you don’t prepare for [the noise], that’s hard. That’s challenging and try to make it louder in practice than we anticipate it to be in games. Last week, we scrimmaged at the exact same time as it will be at Wisconsin. We just try to cover as much as we possibly can.”

Franklin explains the team goes over situational football in practice and meetings to prepare. But the one situation almost impossible to prepare for is playing in a pandemic with new variants and variables being introduced every day.

“There’s still a lot of things that I think we are all doing to try to navigate this in the best way we possibly can,” Franklin said of the pandemic. “But I will tell you even with that, there’s just so much excitement.”

Excitement for Franklin comes in the form of family, revealing his family will attend games, although in a different way.

“Personally, my family is probably not going to come to the games until an hour after they start to make sure everybody is kind of in and they’re not caught up in the crowd, and then they’re going to stay an hour after the game so it clears out,” Franklin said.

The head coach spoke at length in 2020 on the toll the pandemic took on him and his family. His wife and daughters spent much of the season in Florida separate from James, only to return and quarantine the Penn State coach in the apartment above his garage.

His daughter has sickle cell disease but was cleared by her doctors to receive the COVID-19 vaccine this spring.

“We’ve all got to work really hard to [play college football] as safe as we possibly can do it, and we’re all going to have to make sacrifices to make sure that we can keep it,” Franklin expands not wanting to be misinterpreted. “But I do think it’s important, and I think with people being thoughtful and caring of others, not just ourselves, I think we can do this.”

Despite the precautions and the apprehension from some critics about playing, Franklin knows the power of Penn State and the return of college football.

“As you can imagine, I’m a big believer in college athletics and what the athletic experience does to accent the overall university and community when done the right way like we do here at Penn State,” Franklin said. “Obviously, I’m biased when it comes to football and what it does for the community. In a lot of ways you could call it the front porch of the university. For a lot of people, it’s their first experience of what the university is all about, and when you see 107,000 fans all singing together, laughing together, cheering together, hopefully all laughing and cheering, it’s special.”

Penn State opens the 2021 season against Wisconsin on Saturday, September 4 at noon.