The first full weekend of college football is highlighted in the Big Ten by a couple of intriguing crossover division matchups. Penn State's road trip to Wisconsin gets the national spotlight in the noon timeslot and for good reason. Both the Badgers and Nittany Lions are coming into this season looking to redeem themselves a bit after disappointing 2020 campaigns, and getting a chance to go head-to-head offers the ultimate opportunity to set the tone for the 2021 season.
Penn State started off last season with a program-worst 0-5 start and is looking to avoid starting another season on the losing end of things on the road in Big Ten play. Wisconsin may have ended its season with a bowl victory, but the Badgers know they are better than their 4-3 showing last season as well.
Penn State and Wisconsin have produced one of the more underrated series in Big Ten play; the Nittany Lions lead the all-time series 10-9 and have won four consecutive meetings in the series, including the 2016 Big Ten Championship Game. On the other hand, Wisconsin has won 25 straight home openers and is putting that streak on the line against one of the highest-rated opponents it has seen in that time.
Something has to give, right? Time will tell this Saturday afternoon in Madison.
Penn State at Wisconsin
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 4 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Wisconsin -5.5
When Penn State Has the Ball
Sean Clifford returns for a third season as the starting quarterback, and it may be Clifford or bust for the Nittany Lions' offense. Under the guidance of new offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich, the third in three years for Penn State, this could be the best overall season for Clifford yet if he manages to cut down on unforced errors that cost his team a season ago.
Clifford has good talent all around him to have a good season, including wide receiver Jahan Dotson and a healthy Noah Cain at running back. The key for this offense will be seeing more development from younger receiving options like Parker Washington and KeAndre Lambert-Smith. The offensive line is also a bit of a question but has the potential to be the best unit under head coach James Franklin.
Wisconsin's defense, coached by Jim Leonard and led by linebacker Jack Sanborn and a terrific secondary will not make life easy for a Penn State offense attempting to figure things out. There will be minimal time to make in-game adjustments against a Badgers defense that allowed less than 20 points per game last season and generally plays its best at home.
When Wisconsin Has the Ball
Like Penn State, Wisconsin has some uncertainty about the quarterback position going into 2021. However, the Badgers have a different situation with Graham Mertz entering his second season of college football as opposed to his senior season. Mertz gave Wisconsin fans a glimmer of hope with a great start to the 2020 season but hit some speed bumps along the way last fall. Mertz should be perfectly fine this season, and his offensive line should manage to hold off Penn State's defensive pressure enough to give him time to think.
When you think of Wisconsin, you generally think of running backs. This may be more of a question for Wisconsin in 2021 than is generally expected, but Jalen Berger is worthy of handling the football often. Penn State may not allow Berger to run wild on them, but he could pick up some key yards.
The key for Wisconsin will be making plays on first down and creating shorter-yardage situations to challenge a defensive line with just one returning starter on the other side. That is where Wisconsin can create a distinct advantage if Penn State is scrambling up front.
This is a great matchup to open the season for both Wisconsin and Penn State. And recent history would suggest the Nittany Lions may dig a hole early before battling back. That could be the way this one plays out as well, as the Badgers are capable of taking advantage of a Clifford miscue. But if Penn State manages to keep things close going to halftime, the Nittany Lions have a track record of performing better in the second half, and Wisconsin has battled its own turnover issues in recent years. So expect a roller-coaster of emotions in this one. But don't expect a ton of points with these defenses.
Prediction: Penn State 26, Wisconsin 23
Podcast: Week 1 Preview, Predictions & Spread Picks