Following three straight seasons ending with seven wins, the pressure to start showing some true signs of progress is rising for Penn State head coach James Franklin (Penn State has gone 7-6 in each of Franklin's first two campaigns). A new-look offense will be put to the test early on with road trips to Pittsburgh and Michigan and the home slate is highlighted by visits from Ohio State, Michigan State and Iowa.
The 2016 season presents a good number of challenges for Penn State, but the talent pulled together through recruiting has led to some promise for the tradition-rich program that is climbing out of the abbreviated sanction phase. Now it is time to put that potential to the test and show Franklin and his staff can develop the talent. True success and progress will be measured in win totals in 2016.
With that in mind, here is a run through Penn State’s 2016 schedule based on difficulty, from the easiest games on the schedule to the most challenging.
12. Sept. 3 vs. Kent State
Penn State opens the season at home against Kent State, a team it has shut out twice in a row dating back to 2010. The Golden Flashes do return a good chunk of their offensive starters, but this was not a lethal attack in 2016 by any metric. Kent State was just 3-9 last season but can do some things defensively in the right matchup. Penn State’s new offense may be a bit of a work in progress, but even that should be able to overcome any threat Kent State attempts to pose in the opener.
11. Oct. 29 at Purdue
A week after hosting Ohio State, Penn State could potentially be entering a bit of a trap game at Purdue. The Boilermakers are likely a minimal threat at best, and they will be coming off games against Iowa and at Nebraska. While Penn State should have a clear advantage across the board here, this just has a slight smell of a trap and could lead to an uglier game than predicted. Regardless, Penn State should manage to pick up a win, even if it is an ugly one.
10. Nov. 19 at Rutgers
Rutgers is looking to take a page out of the Ohio State playbook with new head coach Chris Ash (a former Urban Meyer assistant) taking over the program. Ash will have quite the task in front of him in year one on the job as Rutgers has plenty of work to do to improve on offense and defense. However, Rutgers has developed a reputation for playing tougher at home, and Penn State has seen that already. Still, Penn State should have the edge nearly across the board and should manage to leave New Jersey with a third straight win over its newest Big Ten rival. Rutgers also will be coming off a road game at Michigan State, while Penn State will have just played at Indiana.
9. Oct. 8 vs. Maryland
When Maryland last paid a visit to Penn State, things were a little edgy from the start. Maryland has a new head coach in D.J. Durkin, some experience at quarterback and a defensive and special teams playmaker in Will Likely. It could be a dangerous mix for Penn State just before the bye week. Maryland is still a rebuilding project for now though, and perhaps may have more work to do in 2016 than Penn State, giving the Nittany Lions the edge at this moment.
8. Sept. 17 vs. Temple
The last time Penn State had revenge on its mind when facing Temple was 1943. The Owls roughed up Penn State’s offensive line and Christian Hackenberg in the 2015 season opener in Philadelphia in what was a perfect matchup for the Owls. This season things should be a little different as Temple loses some key players from last season and Penn State will be at home with a new-look offense and an improving offensive line (maybe, hopefully?) to work with. Sandwiched between road trips to Pittsburgh and Michigan, this game against Temple would have all the makings of a trap game, but having lost to the Owls last season should help avoid any sort of letdown in this mid-September game.
7. Oct. 1 vs. Minnesota
Minnesota remains a little bit of a wild card team in the Big Ten West. The Golden Gophers could be decent enough to pick up a win at any time on their schedule, but they could also struggle at any point as well. They come to State College for the first time since 2009 and will look for their first win in Beaver Stadium since '03. This will be Minnesota’s first road trip of the season too, and Penn State could potentially be looking for a win to start off October after a challenging September.
6. Nov. 12 at Indiana
Penn State was fortunate to get Indiana at home last year when the Hoosiers were extremely banged up on offense, and that showed. Kevin Wilson's team has a knack for doing some good things on offense, while the defense tends to leave something to be desired. Indiana must replace both quarterback Nate Sudfeld and running back Jordan Howard this year, meaning Penn State could potentially have another favorable matchup lining up in mid-November if Wilson can’t plug in the players he needs.
5. Sept. 10 at Pittsburgh
The historic in-state rivalry will finally be renewed in western Pennsylvania as Penn State and Pitt are set to collide for the first time since 2000. The emotions will be running high for this one, and it poses a legitimate challenge to a developing Penn State offense. The game should be highlighted by the brilliant running back battle between Penn State’s Saquon Barkley and Pitt’s inspirational James Conner. The stakes for state bragging rights will be on the line in the first in a four-game series between the two.
4. Nov. 5 vs. Iowa
The Hawkeyes return to State College coming off an undefeated regular season that led to a letdown of a postseason. Iowa also is looking to snap a two-game losing streak to Penn State. Iowa will get a week off to prepare for the game (Penn State plays at Purdue the week before), which is always nice. The game will kick in primetime, which may give Penn State a slight boost.
3. Nov. 26 vs. Michigan State
Michigan State remains a bit of a mystery team for a number of reasons given the turnover on the roster, but one thing you can probably count on is the Spartans being tough on defense. Penn State's regular season comes to a close at home against the defending Big Ten champions, but will Mark Dantonio’s crew be as strong a contender as it has been in recent years, or will this be a good year for the Nittany Lions to snap a three-game losing streak in the series? Getting the Spartans at home is a nice perk after being demolished 55-16 last season in East Lansing and 34-10 the year before in Beaver Stadium.
2. Oct. 22 vs. Ohio State
Urban Meyer’s Buckeyes are undefeated against Penn State since he arrived in Columbus, but the Nittany Lions have played tough against a program a few steps ahead of them on the path to being a national contender. Penn State has typically played Ohio State much tougher when playing at home, and that could once again be the case this season. Despite the many players departing for the NFL, the Buckeyes should still be loaded with talent, starting with quarterback J.T. Barrett, and Ohio State should be a much better team overall by mid-October compared to the one it starts the season with as the Buckeyes work to plug some holes in their lineup. Penn State last scored a home victory against the Buckeyes in 2005 and has given up more than 30 points in three of the last four home games in the series. Penn State also gets a bye week to prepare for the game while Ohio State will be coming off a road trip to Wisconsin.
1. Sept. 24 at Michigan
Put aside the hype factor surrounding the Michigan program. The Wolverines may not be quite ready to take a hold of the Big Ten championship race just yet, but they could very well be the toughest challenge for the Nittany Lions in 2016. While Ohio State and Michigan State may still prove to be the teams to beat by the end of the season, Penn State hits the road for the second time in September to open Big Ten play in Ann Arbor against a Michigan squad that could be more settled in and comfortable offensively than Penn State could potentially be at this point in the season. Penn State also has had a tough time winning games in the Big House. Penn State has just one win in Michigan Stadium since 1997, and that came against Rich Rodriguez.
— 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, TheComeback.com and hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB.