After what's turned out to be another rough week for Penn State fans, it's time to look forward and think about some actual football. With just 51 days until the start of the 2016 season, let's take a look at what's ahead for the Nittany Lions as they attempt to make progress following consecutive 7-6 seasons. Please note that the rankings below do not reflect the quality of each opponent, but rather the magnitude of each game on the 2016 schedule.
1. Michigan (Sept. 24 @Michigan)
You've been asking for a statement win- well this would make one heckuva statement. Many are anticipating a College Football Playoffs run from the Wolverines in year two of the Jim Harbaugh era, with the team possibly starting the season in the top five. Michigan begins its season with home tilts against Hawaii, Central Florida and Colorado before welcoming Penn State in week four, and there's little chance they won't be 3-0 and ranked among the top teams in the nation. A victory for Penn State in the Big House would vault them into the top 25 and get the eyes of the nation on Happy Valley as a legitimate Big Ten contender.
2. Pitt (Sept. 10 @ Pitt)
After a 16-year absence, the reignition of this once-bitter rivalry became even more amplified as the Panthers had a surprisingly good 2015 season in Pat Narduzzi's first year as head coach. A win here could get Penn State in the bottom of the rankings early in the season- or at the very least, in the "Other teams receiving votes" column, while a loss will mean Penn State will be written off by the national media for the time-being. With Pitt seemingly on the rise under Narduzzi and Penn State remaining stagnant during the past few seasons, the outcome of this game will have huge implications on the perception of which is the premier program in Pennsylvania.
3. Ohio State (Oct. 22 @ Penn State)
It seems odd having a night game at Beaver Stadium only come in third, but with a program still looking to turn a corner, early-season games against Pitt and Michigan are just the bigger opportunities to re-gain some national relevance in 2016. Ohio State only returns six starters overall, but should be in outstanding shape by late October, and could even be in contention for a College Football Playoffs berth under Urban Meyer. The Buckeyes will be coming off another prime time road game in front of a raucous Camp Randall crowd at Wisconsin, while the Nittany Lions should be well-rested following an off week.
4. Michigan State (Nov. 26 @ Penn State)
The Spartans may not be getting much hype heading into the season after losing several key players and an embarrassing shutout loss against Alabama in the playoffs, but the Michigan State isn't going anywhere with Mark Dantonio roaming the sidelines (or standing perfectly still devoid of expression, in his case). They are still the defending Big Ten Champions and will compete again in 2016. If all goes well for Penn State, they could be battling for a New Year's Day (or better) bowl. At minimum, they will be looking to send a dedicated group of seniors out on top in their final game at Beaver Stadium.
5. Iowa (Nov. 5 @ Penn State)
The Hawkeyes are one of those programs that could go 5-7 or 12-0 in any given season under Kirk Ferentz, made evidently clear a year ago when they were a last-second Michigan State touchdown away from appearing the playoffs. Either way, a November game under the lights of Beaver Stadium will have the fans in a frenzy. With a relatively soft schedule during the first half of the season for Iowa, this could end up being a defining game for both teams as the 2016 season truly takes form.
6. Temple (Sept. 17 @ Penn State)
This game would typically be ranked near the bottom, but that was before Penn State was spanked by Temple to open the 2015 season. While the Owls may not be able to replicate the magic of its 10-win season from a year ago, it's clear that Temple isn't the same moribund program under former Nittany Lion Matt Rhule. Back-to-back losses to the Owls would be devastating for the outlook of the program, especially since it could mean a 1-3 start for a team working so hard to show marked improvement with a fully-loaded roster in 2016. Simply put- there's a lot more on the line than your typical match-up against Temple.
7. Maryland (Oct. 8 at Penn State)
The Maryland game gets bumped a couple notches after they have made one thing evidently clear- no matter if Penn State ever considers this game a rivalry, it is the one contest the Terps will have circled on their calendar each year. If Maryland isn't already motivated enough to knock off the Nittany Lions in Beaver Stadium twice in three years, there's also a strong possibility they will enter the contest undefeated, with games against Howard, Florida International, Central Florida and Purdue before rolling into Happy Valley. They will want this game more than any other this season- will Penn State want it more?
8. Minnesota (Oct. 1 @ Penn State)
The Golden Gophers have been slowly on the rise under former head Jerry Kill, who unfortunately had to resign during the 2015 season because of health issues. However, the program should continue its trajectory under new head coach Tracy Claeys, a longtime Kill assistant who was wisely offered the position to continue resurrecting the Gophers. Speaking of works of resurrection, this game has the added storyline of new Penn State offensive line coach Matt Limegrover facing off against his former team. You know what you're getting when Minnesota rolls into town- a team that's going to run the ball, run the ball and then run some more while making few mistakes. If nothing else, expect a good ol'-fashioned game of smashmouth football as the leaves begin to turn in Happy Valley.
9. Rutgers (Nov. 19 @ Rutgers)
When they entered the Big Ten in 2014, the Scarlet Knights came in expecting this game to be the one both fanbases anticipated the most each season- well, that hasn't quite worked out as planned for them. Rutgers is undergoing a major rebuild just three years into their residency in the Big Ten, and a truly meaningful game against the Nittany Lions isn't likely in the cards for 2016. However, you have to give credit to the fans for creating an electric atmosphere that nearly fueled a victory in 2014 before a late Bill Belton touchdown managed to clinch the victory for Penn State. You better believe they will do all they can to replicate that atmosphere in another primetime clash.
10. Indiana (Nov. 12 @ Indiana)
The Hoosiers have come a long way under head coach Kevin Wilson, and came oh-so-close to turning the corner in 2015 with near upsets against Ohio State and Michigan, which would have resulted in seismic shifts for the program. Unfortunately for Indiana, they must replace several key players and will likely take a step back this fall before attempting to make further progress again in 2017. We're likely looking at yet another sleepy noon kickoff in Bloomington.
11. Purdue (Oct. 29 @ Purdue)
There hasn't been much to write home about for Purdue since the end of the gun-slinging Joe Tiller era in 2008. Current head coach Darrell Hazell is only 6-30 in his first three seasons at the helm, but pulled a miraculous turnaround while at Kent State, coming just a double-overtime loss to Northern Illinois from an Orange Bowl appearance while leading the team to its first bowl game since 1972 and only its second in program history. Perhaps Hazell can summon that magic once again for an improbable turnaround and this will become a much more important game than expected. But for now, this has the feel of a ho-hum ESPN2 noon game in front of a quiet Ross-Ade crowd.
12. Kent State (Sept. 3 @ Penn State)
Remember in 2012 when Ohio University shocked Penn State to open the season in Beaver Stadium (my apologies to anyone who had successfully repressed this memory) with a boatload of returning starters? Well, Kent State returns a whopping 18 starters from a season ago, but that's where the comparisons end to the Bobcats squad led by Frank Solich. The Golden Flashes finished 3-9 in 2015, with wins coming against lowly Miami of Ohio, UMASS and Delaware State. If the Nittany Lions struggle against this MAC cellar-dweller, expect an especially long and bumpy season in Happy Valley.