Change is in the air around the Penn State football program this year but the expectations remain the same. Despite a number of key players moving on from last year's roster and a couple of staff changes, James Franklin's mission is still to have a team capable of competing for a Big Ten championship in the fall. How close this team is to being ready to go that distance remains to be seen considering the turnover this year, but the schedule certainly throws Penn State a few favors for Big Ten hopes.
Not having to play Ohio State until late in the season gives Penn State plenty of time to take care of some other business to ensure that game in Columbus means as much as it could. A revenge game at home against Michigan followed by a road trip to Michigan State will determine if Penn State is truly capable of competing for the Big Ten championship. A cross-division rotation without Wisconsin, defending West champion Northwestern, or a Nebraska program potentially on the rise feels favorable for the Nittany Lions, although matchups with Purdue and Minnesota could be wild cards, and a road trip to Iowa is never easy.
The non-conference schedule also brings a close to a storied in-state rivalry's brief renewal and a battle with one of the top teams in the MAC and Group of 5 last year. If things fall right for Penn State, a quick 5-0 record is certainly within reason. After that, it's anybody's guess.
Byes: Week 4, Week 10
Week 1 – Aug. 31 vs. Idaho (University Park, Pa.)
Penn State opens the new season with a home game against an FCS opponent when Idaho travels to Beaver Stadium. The first meeting between the two programs should be an easy tune-up for the Nittany Lions. When the game was originally scheduled, Idaho was an FBS member of the Sun Belt Conference, but the Vandals stepped down to FCS last year.
Week 2 – Sept. 7 vs. Buffalo (University Park, Pa.)
After Idaho, Buffalo makes its third trip to Penn State in Week 2. Buffalo is coming off a 10-4 season but will be in a bit of a transition after losing their star quarterback and wide receiver. Don’t be shocked if Buffalo hangs tough, but Penn State should end this one with a 2-0 record. Penn State is 2-0 all-time against Buffalo, with the most recent game being played in 2015.
Week 3 – Sept. 14 vs. Pitt (University Park, Pa.)
The fourth and final installment in the renewed rivalry with Pitt will be played in Week 3, with Penn State staying home for the game. Having won the last two meetings in the series, Penn State has a chance to clinch a winning record against the defending ACC Coastal Division champions. This should be a solid test to close out non-conference play before the first road trip of the season.
Week 5 – Sept. 27 at Maryland (College Park, Md.)
Big Ten play opens on the road for Penn State with a road trip south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Maryland is ushering in a new era with Michael Locksley as head coach, and a statement opportunity against Penn State should inspire the Terrapins to be a threat. Both teams are coming off a bye week before this game, allowing for plenty of prep time. Penn State still has a talent and depth advantage, so it will be up to the coaching staff to have the game plan ready to execute.
Week 6 – Oct. 5 vs. Purdue (University Park, Pa.)
Penn State returns home to take on a rising Purdue program led by Jeff Brohm. Trying to slow down Rondale Moore in the passing game will be key for the Penn State secondary. Purdue can be a serious threat, but playing on the road is something that still poses some problems for the Boilermakers. That could play to Penn State's advantage in Week 6.
Week 7 – Oct. 12 at Iowa (Iowa City, Iowa)
Penn State heads back on the road in Big Ten play for the second time in three weeks with a trip to Iowa City, where no game is ever easy. Iowa will be happy to be home this week after playing on the road at Michigan the previous week. Will the Hawkeyes be beat up from a physical game the week before? Penn State will be in for a stiff test in mid-October.
Week 8 – Oct. 19 vs. Michigan (University Park, Pa.)
The last few meetings in this series have been lopsided in favor of the home teams, each with revenge on the mind going in. After getting squashed by the Wolverines in Ann Arbor last week, Penn State will look to keep that trend going in a key Big Ten East battle. The stakes will be high with both teams getting Ohio State later in the season, while the loser will have an uphill battle to get into the Big Ten Championship Game.
Week 9 – Oct. 26 at Michigan State (East Lansing, Mich.)
Penn State has dropped each of the last two meetings with the Spartans in painful fashion. When the Nittany Lions head out to East Lansing in late October, they will be doing so coming off what should be a physical and potentially an emotionally draining game against the Wolverines. How much will Penn State have left on the road against Mark Dantonio's Spartans?
Week 11 – Nov. 9 at Minnesota (Minneapolis, Minn.)
By now, we'll know just what kind of position Penn State is in for the East Division race. Penn State and Minnesota will each have a bye week to prepare for this one, and the bye week could come at a good time for James Franklin's Nittany Lions. Although this could be a trap game, Penn State should hold the upper hand going in. They’ll have to be careful in this spot though. Minnesota beat Penn State their last time in Minnesota in 2013 and the '16 game went to overtime in State College. And Minnesota is better now.
Week 12 – Nov. 16 vs. Indiana (University Park, Pa.)
Penn State returns home for a game against Indiana. The home cooking should be good in this spot too with a possible mega matchup looming the following week. Penn State has dominated this series and is riding a five-game winning streak against the Hoosiers, including last year's 33-28 victory. Penn State is undefeated at home against Indiana (10-0).
Week 13 – Nov. 23 at Ohio State (Columbus, Ohio)
This could be a big one. If Penn State can manage to win games against Michigan and Michigan State and avoid a loss elsewhere in Big Ten play, this showdown with the Buckeyes one state over could ultimately determine the fate of the Big Ten East with just one week remaining. Transition will be the theme for the Buckeyes this season but Ohio State still has the look of a top Big Ten contender in 2019. The last few games in this series have been tight, and this one could keep that trend going in late November when there could be much riding on the outcome.
Week 14 – Nov. 30 vs. Rutgers (University Park, Pa.)
No matter what happens the previous week in Ohio Stadium, Penn State should absolutely be ready to end the regular season with a win at home. Rutgers is once again a program looking at a likely struggle in 2019 and the end of the year may not come soon enough for the Scarlet Knights. Penn State should end the regular season as they should start it, with a comfortable victory at home.
— 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.