Penn State will play for a division championship for the first time since the 2011 season, but the mood around the program is much more optimistic now than it was five years ago. For good reason too, as Penn State’s offense continues to close out games and the Nittany Lions are still on the radar of the College Football Playoff discussion. To keep that hope alive, they must defeat Michigan State in the final home game of the year in Beaver Stadium. The Spartans may be a fraction of what they have been in recent years, but they can still play spoiler.
Michigan State at Penn State
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 26 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Penn State -12.5
Three Things to Watch
1. What are the stakes for Penn State?
The exact stakes for Penn State riding on this outcome may not be known right when the game kicks off, as the result of the Michigan-Ohio State game in the early afternoon will determine whether or not Penn State will have a chance to win the Big Ten East Division. If Ohio State beats Michigan, then a Penn State victory would send the Nittany Lions to their first Big Ten Championship Game, to face either Wisconsin or Nebraska (likely Wisconsin). However, if Michigan wins in Columbus, Penn State can still play for a shot at a New Year’s Six bowl bid. A Michigan win would clinch the division for the Wolverines, but Penn State can remain in contention for a New Year’s Six bid with a win to stay high in the College Football Playoff rankings. So the stakes will continue to be big, it is just whether or not a Big Ten title shot will be on the line.
2. Can Spartans dig deep to provide another tough test?
Michigan State has had a really long season. A year after winning the Big Ten championship, the Spartans are not going to a bowl game and have just one Big Ten win this season. Last week, the Spartans gave Ohio State all it could handle in East Lansing. Did the Spartans drain their energy in one last upset bid this season, or can they pull it all together for one more chance to play spoiler on the road in State College? It would be unlike a Mark Dantonio-coached team to simply roll over for anybody, so expect Michigan State to give Penn State a battle.
3. Can Penn State get off to a fast start on offense?
As well as Penn State has been playing over the last month, the Nittany Lions continue to struggle to get off to a quick start. Last week against Rutgers, Penn State managed just three field goals in the first half against the worst team in the Big Ten. Penn State takes a while to get warmed up it seems, and that could once again be the case. The emotions should be running high, which could make these Nittany Lions a tad overzealous and take them off their mark early on, but if they can get some good possessions early, they could run away with this one.
Penn State has done everything needed just to play itself into a possible Big Ten East Division-clinching scenario, and now will come the time to prove these Nittany Lions are capable of taking full advantage of this opportunity. It has been a while since Penn State was in this sort of position, but James Franklin’s team should be careful not to overlook Michigan State. That likely will not be the case after getting a chance to see the Spartans push Ohio State last week. Running backs Saquon Barkley for Penn State and LJ Scott for Michigan State should be the featured stars on offense, but Penn State should have an edge in the passing game. Nittany Lions quarterback Trace McSorley may not be the most accurate passer, but he will not be afraid to throw it up there and allow his receivers to make some plays. Michigan State may not have that same luxury.
Prediction: Penn State 23, Michigan State 16
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and The Comeback as well as hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter@KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.