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Penn State Nittany Lions Midseason Review and Second Half Preview

Saquon Barkley

Saquon Barkley

So far, so good. Halfway through the college football season, Penn State has done everything it was expected to do as the Nittany Lions entered their bye week with a clean 6-0 record. Saquon Barkley has been a top candidate for the Heisman Trophy, the defense has played inspired football, and the defending Big Ten champions have scored revenge against Pittsburgh and avoided tripping up in early conference road tests against Iowa and Northwestern.

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Now the real challenges begin for Penn State, who has moved up to No. 2 in the polls. Penn State will begin the second half of the season with the most challenging three-game set you may find in Big Ten play. The next three weeks after the bye week will tell us much about Penn State as a Big Ten and College Football Playoff contender.

Offensive MVP: RB Saquon Barkley

Although Barkley may not have stacked the box score the last two games leading into the bye week as many may have been expecting, Penn State's dynamic running back still looks to be the best all-around ball carrier in the nation and is worthy of the Heisman Trophy hype he has been receiving so far. Barkley is averaging 174.0 yards from scrimmage per game and eight yards per play. Only Stanford's Bryce Love is better in both categories.

Defensive MVP: LB Jason Cabinda

The senior linebacker remains a leader of Penn State's defense with a team-high 40 tackles through six games. Cabinda (above, right) also has recorded three tackles for a loss and a sack and is always active in the middle of the defense. Cabinda has a fumble recovery as well.

Best Moment of the First Half: A last-second victory at Iowa

In Penn State's Big Ten opener on the road, the defending champs were on the ropes against Iowa. Down 19-15 with 1:42 to play, Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley had their best offensive series of the night by driving 80 yards for a last-second victory to keep an undefeated season alive. After being frustrated for much of the night by a feisty Iowa defense, McSorley was in a groove with his passing and his fourth-down connection with Juwan Johnson in the back of the end zone on the final play of the game sent Penn State home with a thrilling victory.

Best Newcomer: DE Shaka Toney

The freshman has taken advantage of his time on the field this season with a team-high three sacks and the second-most tackles for a loss halfway through the season. The three-star prospect seems to have gotten off to a good start and is quickly becoming a player to watch on Penn State's defensive line.

Biggest Surprise: Just how good Penn State's defense appears to be

Despite losing a couple players to knee injuries (CB John Reid and DE Torrence Brown), Penn State's defense has been shutting down opponents very well this season. The Nittany Lions are allowing just 9.0 points per game on the strength of a pair of shutouts and nearly a third. Penn State is the only team in the country not to allow a point in the first quarter this season and its four points per game allowed in the first half is second best only to Alabama (3.7 ppg). The level of difficulty may not have been too challenging, but the Nittany Lions have established control on the defensive side of the ball the way really good teams are supposed to.

Three Things to Watch in the Second Half

1. The make-or-break stretch is about to begin

Penn State will open up a pivotal three-game stretch that will determine whether or not the Nittany Lions will be a Big Ten and College Football Playoff contender or pretender. After resting up on their bye week, Penn State hosts Michigan and then travels to Ohio State and Michigan State in consecutive weeks.

2. Can Saquon Barkley maintain a lead in the Heisman race?

Stanford's Bryce Love has been surging in the Heisman race, but Barkley remains in a favorable position. Like Penn State's Big Ten and playoff hopes, this three-game stretch could determine whether or not Barkley will be the favorite to win the Heisman Trophy.

3. Can Penn State find big plays through the air?

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One of the signatures of Penn State's wild run to the Rose Bowl last season was the ability to create some big plays through the air for big gains. Those moments haven't quite been there in the same fashion this season as defenses have aimed to take away some of those opportunities down the field and the wide receivers have taken a little time to get in their groove. It hasn't hurt them at this point, but the Nittany Lions could benefit if they can start making a few of those plays in the second half.

Ranking the Toughest Remaining Games on the Schedule

1. Oct. 28 at Ohio State

The game of the year in the Big Ten is coming up for the Nittany Lions. Ohio State will be coming off a bye week after Penn State will have played Michigan, and the Buckeyes have been surging since losing at home to Oklahoma.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Ohio State

2. Oct. 21 vs. Michigan

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Michigan

The Wolverines are struggling to find their offensive ways, but Michigan makes up for that shortcoming with one of the best defenses in the nation. Penn State's offense will have to hold off a strong defensive front if the Nittany Lions are going to take advantage with their offense. Having a bye week to prepare could help.

3. Nov. 4 at Michigan State

After back-to-back games against Michigan and Ohio State, how much will be left in the tank for an improved and more confident Michigan State squad that has already beaten Michigan? A trip to East Lansing could be tricky no matter what happens in the two weeks prior to the road game against the Spartans.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Michigan State

4. Nov. 25 at Maryland

The Terrapins have been one of the more pleasant surprises in the Big Ten this season outside of Purdue, but Maryland's hot start has led to a roster being worn down by injuries. This game was starting to look trickier for Penn State in the regular season finale and still could be one to watch, but the Terps may not be the threat they could have been if healthy.

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5. Nov. 18 Nebraska

Penn State has not beaten the Cornhuskers since they joined the Big Ten, but this should be the year that changes. Nebraska is in full-blown disaster mode and could be walking into a rough situation in Beaver Stadium in mid-November with Penn State in position to end the regular season on a high note in its home finale.

Nebraska's college football logo

6. Nov. 11 Rutgers

Rutgers still has a long way to go in order to compete in the Big Ten East and the talent gap alone should lead to a relatively easy win for Penn State after a challenging three-game stretch of Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State.

College football rankings: Rutgers

— 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.