Year two of the James Franklin era at Penn State brings with it a renewed sense of optimism. After going through some adjustments with a coaching transition, the second in three years for the Penn State program, things are expected to run a bit more smoothly this season with an improving offensive line giving quarterback Christian Hackenberg and the running game some time to do make some plays while the defense looks to continue holding down the fort as often as needed.
Penn State will be presented with some tough challenges this season with Ohio State and Michigan State residing in the same division and Michigan potentially starting to awaken from a slumber with Jim Harbaugh now calling the shots. But there are other obstacles to face as well, including a handful of programs that celebrated at Penn State's expense last season. With the Nittany Lions stocking up on depth, will things be any different this season?
Here is a look at Penn State's opponents this season, ranked from easiest to toughest. No game can be assumed to be a win, but some wins should be easier to come by than others.
12. Oct. 3 vs. Army West Point
Penn State welcomes Army to Beaver Stadium for the first time in decades. The home team should send their visitors back to West Point with a loss, as the Black Knights' run game will not have enough to break the Nittany Lions.
11. Sep. 12 vs. Buffalo
The Bulls come to Beaver Stadium in Week 2 but should not pose much of a threat to the Nittany Lions. Penn State should manage to walk through this one without much concern, and it should be a good week to iron out any wrinkles seen in the season opener at Temple.
10. Oct. 10 vs. Indiana
Indiana has caused some fits for Penn State in recent years, and the games have tended to be ugly lately. That should change this season. Penn State will use Indiana as a final tune-up before visiting Ohio State, and a perfect record could be on the line. Indiana has beaten Penn State just once in program history. It won't celebrate a second win this fall.
9. Nov. 7 at Northwestern
Northwestern embarrassed Penn State last season in Beaver Stadium before a Homecoming crowd, so naturally Penn State will be looking to avoid a repeat performance. Northwestern returns a boatload of starters on defense, but what shape will the Wildcats be in by early November? This one could potentially be higher in the pecking order, but for now it stays here.
8. Sep. 26 San Diego State
The first meeting between the two programs should be a decent test for Penn State. San Diego State's running game will be a challenge for Penn State's defense, but not one that should see the Mountain West Conference program leave for the West Coast with a win.
7. Sept. 5 at Temple
Some Penn State fans may take this one for granted, but that would be unwise. If Penn State's offensive line needs time to figure things out against live opposition, Temple is not the team to open the season against. The Owls return an experienced team with a solid defense, as they prepare all summer to host Penn State in the season opener. The Owls probably lack the offense needed to score the rare upset, but Temple's defense could potentially cause some problems early on for Penn State.
6. Sept. 19 vs. Rutgers
The Big Ten opener in Beaver Stadium should be a bit more comfortable for the Nittany Lions compared to their road trip to New Jersey last season. Last year saw Penn State win a turnover-filled game with a late comeback. Penn State should feel right at home in its stadium this season to open Big Ten play with a win.
5. Oct. 31 vs. Illinois
There is just something about Illinois. The team may be in meltdown mode but there may be enough in the tank to avoid being put away easily by Penn State. Revenge is once again on the mind for Penn State after seeing Illinois back its way into a bowl invite thanks in part to a victory against the Nittany Lions. Penn State mustered just 14 points against the Illini last season.
4. Oct. 24 at Maryland (Baltimore)
Penn State travels south of the Mason-Dixon Line to take on new division rival Maryland. After the way last season's game started and finished, the Nittany Lions will have revenge on the mind. Maryland may have lost some playmakers from last year's team, but the Terrapins will likely step their game up a bit to take on Penn State in Baltimore, where the crowd should be pretty balanced.
3. Nov. 21 vs. Michigan
Last year's game was one Penn State felt it should have won. Alas, it is yet another loss the Nittany Lions will look to avenge this season. But this year Michigan has Jim Harbaugh coaching, and the bar is being raised in Ann Arbor. Will Michigan still have enough to scrap together a win on the road against Penn State? The Wolverines have had some bad luck in State College in recent trips, and Penn State could be feeling pretty good by this point in the season. This game could potentially be lower as the season plays out, but this will be a huge game for both programs heading into the final week of the season.
2. Nov. 28 at Michigan State
Penn State will wrap up the regular season on the road in bitter, cold East Lansing in late November. Michigan State could be in the running for a spot in the Big Ten Championship Game (and College Football Playoff?) if the Spartans stay healthy. Michigan State still appears to have a leg up on rebuilding Penn State, and playing on the road in late November may not be a good situation for the Nittany Lions this year.
1. Oct. 17 at Ohio State
Penn State has a rough history in Ohio Stadium since joining the Big Ten, including their last trip here two seasons ago sending them home with a 63-14 loss. Last year's game in Happy Valley was much closer with undermanned Penn State taking the eventual national champions into overtime. Penn State may be feeling good at this point if the first half of the season goes according to plan, but Ohio State could be the No. 1 team in the nation by this point. Penn State is working to close the gap with the Buckeyes, but it is still a work in progress. No game will be tougher for Penn State than this one.
— 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 writes for CollegeFootballTalk.com and hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB.