Penn State's success this season will hinge on how it handles several tough road games and showdown with Ohio State
Penn State is getting set to begin its seventh season with James Franklin at the helm, and the expectations for the program continue to be on the rise. Already heralded as one of the top five teams in the country to begin the 2020 season, Penn State will have to prove it can live up to the hype.
Because of the Big Ten's announcement on July 9 that it will employ conference-only schedules for all fall sports, including football, Penn State will not face Kent State or San Jose State at home nor will the Nittany Lions make their first-ever trip to Blacksburg, Virginia, to play the Virginia Tech Hokies.
As for the Big Ten-only slate (as currently scheduled), there are still plenty of challenging matchups on tap, including road dates with Michigan and Nebraska as well as back-to-back home games against Iowa and Ohio State. But which games are the safest bets for the Nittany Lions and where might the possible traps and hurdles on the schedule be as Penn State looks to crack their way into the College Football Playoff picture?
9. Nov. 28 at Rutgers
The idea of Greg Schiano bringing a close to his first season back at Rutgers at home in a statement opportunity against Penn State could be something to watch, but the Nittany Lions are far more equipped and have too deep of a team to be get another scare from the Scarlet Knights. This will especially be true if Penn State has any major postseason implications riding on the outcome in the regular-season finale in New Jersey.
8. Sept. 26 vs. Northwestern
Northwestern had a bumpy ride in 2019 and appears to lack the talent to pull off an upset in Beaver Stadium in late September. However, Pat Fitzgerald's Wildcats have a knack for being just pesky enough to make things ugly and closer than the so-called experts may predict.
7. Nov. 21 vs. Maryland
Penn State has flat-out dominated Maryland in recent meetings, but the Terrapins could potentially be a team ready to take some steps forward. It may not all be there just yet for the Terps, which should bode well for Penn State in this late-season matchup.
6. Nov. 14 vs. Michigan State
This is another game that is somewhat difficult to forecast. Will Michigan State field a strong enough defense capable of taking away Penn State's big-play offense? Will the Spartans be able to score enough points? Penn State cannot take Michigan State lightly, but the Spartans could also be a pretty weak threat if things don’t start well for them this fall.
5. Oct. 17 vs. Iowa
If there is one thing to be said about Iowa, it is that the Hawkeyes can hang with Penn State. But the Nittany Lions have long since exorcised their Iowa demons and have been riding high in the series in recent years. After getting a bye week, Penn State should be refreshed and ready to play the Hawkeyes, who are coming off a road trip to Ohio State the previous week.
4. Oct. 31 at Indiana
Those Hoosiers sure can be dangerous, especially at home. Tom Allen's program is coming off a successful 2019 campaign, but Penn State will look to escape Bloomington with a key Big Ten win not to be overlooked.
3. Nov. 7 at Nebraska
Penn State's longest road trip of the season comes in early November when they head to Lincoln to play a Nebraska team that will either have shown signs of improvement or could be fighting for their bowl hopes down the stretch. Regardless, the timing of this game is not the most ideal for Penn State. The Nittany Lions could be walking right into a bit of a trap situation that could derail some lofty postseason aspirations if they are not careful. Penn State is 2-5 all-time in Lincoln, with their most recent victory coming in 1981 (0-2 since, including 0-1 in Big Ten play).
2. Oct. 3 at Michigan
The home team has held the upper hand in the last few years in this Big Ten East series. Penn State is without a win in Ann Arbor under James Franklin, so there will be something to prove in this year's matchup in a key early division showdown with the Wolverines. Michigan's offense may still be vulnerable as a work in progress, but the Nittany Lions have to avoid making costly mistakes early and often if they are to pick up their first win in Michigan Stadium since 2009. Penn State is 1-8 at Michigan since 1998.
1. Oct. 24 vs. Ohio State
There is absolutely no contest what Penn State's most challenging game will be this season. It will be near the end of October against the preseason Big Ten and College Football Playoff favorite, Ohio State. The Buckeyes have frustrated some of Penn State's best efforts in recent years, including the last time these teams played in Happy Valley. What makes this year's game even more potentially challenging is the possibility of having a reduced home-field advantage if stadium capacity in Beaver Stadium is capped. Either way, Penn State has their paws full with Justin Fields and the Buckeyes.
Note: Schedule subject to change. Prior to the Big Ten's decision to go with a conference-only schedule, Penn State's scheduled opener with Kent State (Sept. 5) would have ranked last (12th) on this list. The Nittany Lions' Sept. 19 home date with San Jose State would have been next (11th) and their first-ever meeting with Virginia Tech in Blacksburg (Sept. 12) would have checked in at No. 4.
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Patreon, on Twitter @KevinOnCFB, and Like him on Facebook.