Trace McSorley and the defending Big Ten champions end their October slate with back-to-back games against Michigan and Ohio State
After making a surprise run to a Big Ten championship in 2016, Penn State is no longer a team flying under the radar. In 2017, the Nittany Lions will be put in a position to be considered a favorite on a regular basis, including in some big games coming their way this fall.
James Franklin’s Nittany Lions will be a bigger target in 2017 after a late rise in the Big Ten standings and the polls before being left on the doorstep to the College Football Playoff last year. The only two teams to beat Penn State during the regular season last fall will make road trips to Beaver Stadium this season. The schedule gods also may offer these games to Penn State at good times. The game of the year, however, sees no favors thrown Penn State’s way.
Here is a look at Penn State’s 2017 schedule, ranking opponents from least threatening to most dangerous based on the caliber of the opponent, where the game is located, and when the game is scheduled among other factors.
12. Sept. 2 vs. Akron
Terry Bowden’s Zips make their way to Beaver Stadium for the sixth time since 1999. Akron may have what it takes to make a run for a MAC East Division crown, but should be hard-pressed to slow down Penn State’s offense with much hope of keeping this one tight. Akron owned the nation’s 114th-ranked total defense in 2016 and gave up 33.6 points per game. Penn State has won each contest with Akron by a minimum of 18 points.
11. Nov. 11 Rutgers
Last season demonstrated just how far Rutgers is from competing in the Big Ten East, and the Scarlet Knights likely won’t be able to close the gap nearly enough in 2017. Rutgers has scored 13 points against Penn State in three meetings since joining the Big Ten, fewer than it has scored against either Ohio State, Michigan or Michigan State. After getting blanked last season at home, Rutgers will hope to play spoiler against the Nittany Lions in Happy Valley, but that seems unlikely.
10. Sept. 16 vs. Georgia State
After teaming up for some satellite camp work in recent years, Penn State welcomes Georgia State to Beaver Stadium for the first time. The Panthers have the experience to try giving Penn State’s passing game some problems, but the big-play offense should be able to pounce on the Panthers on the ground with relative ease.
9. Sept. 30 vs. Indiana
Penn State returns home after playing a Big Ten opener on the road at Iowa to host the Indiana Hoosiers. Indiana will have already played Ohio State in the season opener, so the Nittany Lions should have a good look at what the Hoosiers look like against one of the Big Ten’s best under new head coach Tom Allen. From the early outlooks, Indiana doesn’t appear to be too scary for Penn State, especially at home.
8. Nov. 25 at Maryland
Penn State wraps up the 2017 regular season on the road at Maryland, where for the first time since the Terrapins joined the Big Ten the Nittany Lions will visit College Park (their 2015 matchup was played in Baltimore). Maryland appears to be trending upward and could be a viable upset threat, but it is conceivable Penn State could have a lot riding on the outcome of the game and the Nittany Lions figure to have the edge in talent. Penn State won comfortably last season and could pull away again.
7. Oct. 7 at Northwestern
A trip to Evanston is always ripe for an upset bid as long as Pat Fitzgerald is coaching Northwestern. The showdown of two of the Big Ten’s top running backs, Saquon Barkley and Northwestern’s Justin Jackson, makes this one to watch, but the Wildcats will need a strong effort from quarterback Clayton Thorson and the passing game to give Penn State a panic attack.
6. Sept. 9 vs. Pittsburgh
Pitt took a sizable lead on Penn State early in last season’s matchup before the Nittany Lions orchestrated a rally that was snapped by a late interception thrown by Trace McSorley. This season could be different as Pitt undergoes some transitions on offense, but the Panthers still have a dangerous Qadree Ollison running the ball. Penn State may get Pitt at a good time early on in the season. This is far from an automatic win, but Penn State won’t be likely to dig a big hole at home.
5. Sept. 23 at Iowa
Penn State’s Big Ten opener will be played on the road against an Iowa team never to be taken lightly. It was in Kinnick Stadium where Michigan stumbled last November, leaving the door open for a Big Ten title run for Penn State. Akrum Wadley running behind a solid offensive line makes Iowa a real obstacle, and if the Hawkeyes can get any consistency in the passing game, Penn State could have a tricky game on its hands.
4. Nov. 4 at Michigan State
Michigan State had a disappointing 2016 campaign and was not able to keep any momentum going to block Penn State from playing for the Big Ten championship last season. This year the Spartans should bounce back, but how much? Regardless of how good Michigan State may or may not be in 2017, a trip to East Lansing in November is rarely going to be easy. Penn State gets this road trip immediately after a home game against Michigan and a road game at Ohio State. The timing could be critical here.
3. Oct. 21 vs. Michigan
The Nittany Lions get a week off to prepare for a key revenge game against Michigan. The Wolverines embarrassed an injury-depleted Penn State last season, so the Nittany Lions could be looking forward to some payback against Jim Harbaugh’s crew this season. If healthy, Penn State should be much better equipped to face the Wolverines. Playing at home in front of what is expected to be a primetime crowd could be a lift, although Michigan has a history of spoiling things in Happy Valley.
2. Nov. 18 vs. Nebraska
Penn State has yet to defeat Nebraska since the Huskers joined the Big Ten in 2011, and if things go according to Penn State’s plan, this could be a potential preview of the Big Ten Championship Game. Nebraska needs to improve its defense and could do that with new coordinator Bob Diaco.
1. Oct. 28 at Ohio State
There is no disputing which game on Penn State’s 2017 schedule is the biggest and most challenging of the year. Not only is Ohio State once again loaded with talent and playing at home, but also Urban Meyer gets to play the revenge card for the first time in his coaching career when facing Penn State. That seems like a tall order even for a very talented Nittany Lions team. Despite winning last year’s game, Penn State has plenty of room for improvement on offense against Ohio State. The Buckeyes did well in slamming the door shut on the Nittany Lions' attack for the majority of last year’s game, so Trace McSorley, Saquon Barkley and the rest of the offense must be prepared to find a way to crack Ohio State’s defense. Penn State makes the trip to Columbus a week after hosting Michigan while the Buckeyes get an extra week to prepare. Expect this one to be in primetime with the winner likely taking charge of the Big Ten East race entering November.
— 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.