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Penn State Football: Ranking the Toughest Games on Their Schedule

Penn State Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin

Penn State Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin

Penn State may be looking to replace a good number of key players from last year’s team, but a challenging schedule ahead of the Nittany Lions actually throws a few favors to James Franklin and Trace McSorley and the rest of the program.

Penn State Nittany Lions QB Trace McSorley

Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin all happen to come to Happy Valley this season, but a November road trip to Michigan could turn out to be one of the most challenging obstacles of the season. If Penn State is going to make a run for a Big Ten Championship Game appearance, the Nittany Lions will certainly have to go out and earn it this year, even with some key games being played at home.

The non-conference schedule also is interesting with a potential tussle against a Group of 5 power and an in-state rivalry game in western Pennsylvania.

Here is a look at the Penn State football schedule for 2018, beginning with the easiest games appearing on the schedule and moving our way up to the stiffest challenges.

12. Sept. 15 vs. Kent State

The Golden Flashes have not won more than three games in a season since 2013, when they won four games. Don’t count on Kent State giving Penn State much of a threat.

College Football Rankings: Kent State

11. Nov. 17 at Rutgers

Penn State won last year’s meeting 35-6 and claimed a 39-0 victory in its most recent trip to The Garden State. Rutgers still has a long way to go to close the gap.

College football rankings: Rutgers

10. Sept. 21 at Illinois

Penn State hits the road for its Big Ten opener with a Friday night matchup at Illinois. Lovie Smith has a lot of building to do, and the matchup does not appear to be a favorable one for him in this game. Penn State should be able to cruise to a win on the road.

College Football Rankings: Illinois

9. Sept. 1 vs. Appalachian State

Don’t sleep on the Mountaineers. With a combined record of 30-9 the last three seasons, Appalachian State has potential to hang with Penn State a little longer than some might think. But through four quarters, Penn State should be able to hold the edge.

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8. Oct. 20 at Indiana

The Hoosiers have struggled against the top teams on their schedule, with an 0-4 record against ranked opponents last season that includes a 45-14 loss at Penn State. Penn State leads the all-time series 20-1, with the lone loss coming in 2013 in Bloomington.

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7. Nov. 24 vs. Maryland

Maryland stunned Penn State in the teams' first meeting as Big Ten foes, but the Nittany Lions have continued to dominate the series as they have historically have. Penn State won 66-3 last year on the road. This one should be closer, but unless Maryland stays healthy and improves, Penn State still holds a decisive edge.

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6. Sept. 8 at Pittsburgh

Penn State and Pitt may be trending in different directions over the past few seasons, but a rivalry game in western Pennsylvania is always going to raise the stakes just a bit. Penn State pulled away for a 33-14 win last year. Look for Pitt to try and control the tempo to slow down the PSU offense.

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5. Oct. 27 vs. Iowa

Penn State came away with a rare walk-off victory on the road against the Hawkeyes last season. The Nittany Lions have swung this series in their favor with four straight wins including a 41-14 victory in Beaver Stadium in 2016.

College Football Rankings: Iowa Football

4. Oct. 13 vs. Michigan State

A year after suffering a tough loss in East Lansing, Penn State will be out for revenge against Michigan State. Penn State also gets a bye week to prepare for this home game, giving the Nittany Lions a chance to prepare for a key divisional showdown.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Michigan State

3. Nov. 10 vs. Wisconsin

The Badgers should be ready to contend for the Big Ten championship again this season as the team to beat in the West Division. A trip to Penn State in November could potentially be a conference title game preview, but the stakes will be high for each in their respective division races. Jonathan Taylor running the ball will be a major threat to combat for Penn State.

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2. Nov. 3 at Michigan

Before hosting Wisconsin, Penn State plays its toughest road game of the season in Ann Arbor against the Wolverines. Michigan is getting plenty of preseason hype depending where you look, and the addition of Ole Miss transfer quarterback Shea Patterson is being heralded as the cure for the offense. If it is, this could be the toughest game on the schedule for Penn State. But until Michigan proves the offense is cured, the toughest game for the Nittany Lions is...

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Michigan

1. Sept. 29 vs. Ohio State

A no-brainer, really. Ohio State continues to be loaded with top-notch talent thanks to years of high-level recruiting by Urban Meyer and his staff. Penn State is making up some ground in that department, but Ohio State has plenty of talent to compete for a Big Ten and national title once again. But Penn State gets this major Big Ten East Division game at home at the end of September. The matchup may even have more riding on the outcome for Penn State than it will for Ohio State, because the Buckeyes may be able to afford a loss in this game more than the Nittany Lions. Penn State let one slip away in Ohio Stadium last season too, so James Franklin’s squad should be well aware that nothing should be taken for granted against the Buckeyes. Game of the year in the Big Ten? It could potentially be just that.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Ohio State

Athlon Sports Cover 2 Podcast: Games. Games. And more Games!

-- Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. 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.