Now that the college football playoff is a reality, an undefeated season in college football means winning 15 straight games (14 if you’re a Group of 5 member —sorry guys). The feat hasn’t been accomplished in college football yet, but it won’t be long before a team rips through its schedule and claims the honor of being the first team to go 15-0 in the history of the sport. Here’s how Penn State can do it this season, game by game.
Akron: Shake off the rust
If you recall back to darker, more depressing times, Akron gave Penn State all it could handle on the way to a 21-3 loss. That game was much closer than the score indicated, and had it not been for outstanding defensive play, it would have been a bigger battle. Akron has been playing better under Terry Bowden, albeit not enough to be in the upper echelon of the MAC. Penn State can use the first quarter to work out any kinks they may have, but from the second quarter on, the Zips should be all but put away.
Pitt: Exact revenge
Last season’s close call against the Panthers was enough to give opposing fans something to talk about for a year, and fueled the fiery rage of a thousand suns on our coach. Pitt is missing a lot of people from last year’s team, and Penn State’s defense will only stand to get better. [Ed. Note: Three players were suspended for this game since I wrote this. Woof!] Penn State’s offense was just getting the hang of things when they last saw Pitt, and the defense had a number of injuries on its end. With a little bit of luck, that will be the complete opposite on each side of the ball for the Nittany Lions, while the Panthers will be looking for playmakers out of Kanye knows where.
Look for the Nittany Lions to score until the final seconds of the game, and don’t be surprised if this goes to triple digits. The hatred is real.
Georgia State: Show up (and avoid injuries)
Barring the monumental scare the other Panthers put on Wisconsin last season, Georgia State’s run on FBS has been rough, for obvious reasons. This game should pose no threat to the Nittany Lions, and the team should be looking to rest the starters midway through the third quarter, if not earlier.
Iowa: Beware of the boogeyman
Iowa is a scary place at night. It has been this way for as long as I remember*. The Hawkeyes, like the boogeyman, have consistently stolen top teams away, never to be seen again.
Kirk Ferentz’s team is once again coming up unnoticed even though they returned a good amount of talent at the lines. They also added another thousand-yard rusher in Nevada’s James Butler, which gives Iowa two great options at the one thing they’ve done well in the entire of Ferentz’s tenure in Iowa City. That usually spells trouble for opposing teams expecting a down year for the Hawkeyes.
Ferentz will try to turn the game into a slopfest of field goals and safeties (note: if Iowa scores a safety, they must win. It’s a rule) and will look to keep the game close enough that any one mistake will turn the tide in his favor. They, in essence, are The Original Flukes™.
If Franklin wants a blueprint of what to do in Iowa City, he should watch film of the 2012 game when Bill O’Brien was the coach. If Penn State attacks from start to finish, it’s not likely that Iowa will be able to keep pace.
Indiana: Exploit their offense
Indiana has seldom given Penn State any trouble in State College, but the Indiana of yesteryear is no more. While not world beaters by any stretch of the imagination, the Hoosiers have become competitive in the past six years. That said, for the first time since 2011, the Indiana Hoosiers will be without its offensive mastermind behind the wheel. Kevin Wilson is now the offensive coordinator at Ohio State, while Tom Allen took over Indiana’s head coaching vacancy. Allen is a good coach in his own right, and is solely the reason for Indiana’s sudden competence on defense, but that in and of itself is his weakness. He’s known for his proficiency on defense, not his offensive prowess. He brought Mike DeBord in from Tennessee to take care of that side of the ball, and, as everyone expects, the offense will likely take a step back from what we’re accustomed to.
Penn State should use this to their advantage when they meet the Hoosiers. If they can stop the Hoosiers from keeping up the pace, their improved defense won’t matter in the end.
Northwestern: Wake up
Penn State and Northwestern have shared many a noon game over the past 25 years. Unsurprisingly, the Nittany Lions have needed at least one quarter to wake up and realize there’s a game being played. This is especially true in the past few seasons, more so under Pat Fitzgerald’s watch. Ironic, really, since you’d think watching a face as douchey as that one would be enough to give anyone a jolt of energy. I digress.
Northwestern, all things considered, are a better Indiana. Their defense is usually solid (when they’re not losing by multiple scores to Iowa), their offense is usually good enough to keep them in games, and sometimes even good for a shootout. What the Wildcats lack that Penn State has, though, is premier talent across the board. They have it at spots, with Justin Jackson and Clayton Thorson on offense, but did lose some talent on defense.
If the Nittany Lions can get out of their own way early, not having to play catch-up with the Wildcats, I expect this game to be unlike the other three between these two coaches. If Franklin once again falls into the trap of trying to out Fitzgerald Fitzgerald, we may have a Ferentz/Paterno situation in our hands.
Michigan: Exploit their youth
Of the coaches Franklin has played against in the Big Ten, he has yet to beat two of them. The first was the aforementioned Pat Fitzgerald, the second is Jim Harbaugh. Franklin will have an opportunity to beat both for the first time in consecutive games.
This Michigan team will be talented for sure, but young pretty much everywhere. They return five starters —one less than Ohio State did last season, and don’t necessarily have the easiest of schedules leading up to this game. The Wolverines could either be very seasoned by the time they travel to State College, or already deflated having lost a few games. Either way, this will be the first tough road environment for their team, as their two other road games before this one are at Purdue and Indiana.
It has not yet been confirmed, but I would be surprised if this game isn’t a night game when the rest of the schedules are announced. Crazy, noisy fans and a young team don’t mix well, which should give Penn State all the ammunition it needs to get revenge for last year’s 49-10 debacle.
Also, if all goes well, Penn State won’t be missing half its starting defense for this game. That should help.
Ohio State: Stop J.T. Barret and the offense
When all is said and done, Urban Meyer will go down as one of the best coaches in the history of the sport. Meyer has never had a losing season with any of the teams he’s coached, and is on the path to having one of the best records in college football. That said, if there is one weakness in his body of work, is the propensity to make questionable decisions when his offense isn’t working smoothly.
We saw this last season with Penn State, and again in 2014. We’ve seen it a few more times with Michigan State, and even saw it last year with Michigan (a game which Michigan should have won running away, but that’s another topic). Meyer seems to, for some reason, forget he’s a great coach when his offense is struggling on the field, and only the very best teams have been able to take advantage of it.
If Penn State can go into Columbus and force J.T. Barret and the crew to struggle again, all they have to do in turn is generate enough offense to keep pace, and wait for the inevitable decision that will hand the Nittany Lions the win. Who knows, maybe Penn State can win on another fluke**, and really twist the knife (while getting revenge for last season’s playoff snub).
Michigan State: Remember the Spartans
Penn State’s rough stretch ends with a road trip to Michigan State, which is not going to have a repeat of 2016. It will be imperative for Franklin and crew to keep that in mind when making this trip, as any false sense of security will quickly turn this game in favor of the Spartans.
That said, Michigan State is not going to compete for the championship this season. They lost too much to graduation, suspensions, deflections, and the like to go right back to the top of the conference after last season. If the Lions can stay disciplined, with the understanding that this Michigan State team is still good enough to give anyone a game and maybe even take it, they should be just fine.
If they need any motivation, they can play the first half of last season’s game or the entirety of the 2015 game during that week.
Rutgers: Show up, part 2
I have no doubt in my mind that Rutgers will be at least somewhat better than they were last season, but how much better will be anyone’s guess. My guess is that they won’t be that much better.
Rutgers will likely come down as the second easiest game on the schedule; not because they’ll be worse than Akron, but because, unlike Akron, they don’t get the benefit of catching the Nittany Lions on the first game of the season. By the time Rutgers and Penn State play, the Lions will either be on the fast track to another Big Ten East title, or right in the thick of the race. Any kinks the team may have needed to work out would be out of the way, and this game would just be a matter of avoiding any injuries.
Nebraska: Your guess is as good as mine
This seems like a copout in a sense, but the mystery with this team is undeniable. The Cornhuskers lost some talent on defense, but hired Bob Diaco as defensive coordinator. They lost quarterback Tommy Armstrong on offense, but Tanner Lee is a better fit for Mike Riley’s offense. They also pulled a pretty good recruiting class in 2017, ranked 23rd nationally and fifth in the Big Ten. 2016’s wasn’t far behind either. So Nebraska won’t be devoid of talent this season. And, at this point in the year, they’ll have all the experience they need to take on the Nittany Lions.
This team could either be as good as everyone expected them to be in 2016, or they could flop due to all the changes in the offseason. We’re likely going to get a good idea of which one it is when they visit Oregon in week two.
Maryland: End Strong
This game will either be to clinch the East or meaningless. If Penn State is undefeated headed into this game, the least they can do is tie for the Big Ten East crown, and if everything goes as expected, tiebreakers will give them the division anyway. Having that in the backs of their minds may give the Lions a bit of overconfidence, so it’s up to Franklin to continue his motivation tactics against a Maryland team that may be better than its record indicates at this point in the season.
Maryland, like Nebraska, has been bringing in some good players over the past few seasons, and head coach D.J. Durkin took that to another level in 2017. If the talent can produce right away, they might even have the record to show their quality by season’s end. Combine that with rivalry aspect to this game, and you may have an interesting contest to end the season.
With the Big Ten East in sight, the Lions should look to bury Maryland early, lest they open a window of opportunity for the overmatched Terrapins to slip through.
Due to the number of teams Penn State could face in this part of the schedule, I’m going to limit evaluations to the teams they’d be most likely to face instead of listing every possibility.
Big Ten Championship Game: Wisconsin
In a possible rematch against the Wisconsin Badgers, Penn State’s strategy needs to be the opposite of what they did last season, at least for the first half. While exciting, exhilarating even, coming back from 21 points is not the formula for success. Wisconsin will also be looking for revenge in this game, so don’t take them lightly.
If Penn State can be the aggressor from the start and take a multiple-score lead, the Badger offense might not be equipped to make a comeback. That’t the position the Lions need to be in this game if they don’t want to sweat out a victory, or worse yet, lose altogether.
Other possibilities: Minnesota, Iowa, Northwestern, Nebraska
College Football Playoff, Game 1: Alabama
Alabama has been in all three playoffs since the format’s inception in 2014. They made the championship game twice, winning one of them. There’s no reason to believe the Crimson Tide won’t again be a playoff participant this season, as the path to an SEC championship is just as easy as last season’s. Ole Miss is in turmoil, LSU is under a new coach***, Texas A&M, Mississippi State, and Arkansas have pieces, but not a complete team, and Auburn hasn’t been able to repeat 2013’s magic ever since. Whoever wins the SEC East will likely be a sacrificial lamb anyway, so that won’t even be a consideration.
As per Alabama itself, they’re one of the most talented teams in the nation under one of the best coaches in history. This game will be tough for the Nittany Lions, and the only way I can envision them winning is with pure, unadulterated offense. The defense will be able to keep Alabama at bay for a little while, as Michigan State showed in 2015 and Washington did last year, but if Penn State isn’t putting plenty of points on the board, the bending will eventually break in Alabama’s favor.
Other possibilities: Clemson, Oklahoma, Florida State, Oklahoma State, Ohio State****
College Football Playoff: Game 2, USC
If everything goes according to plan, this will be your national championship matchup. In a repeat of what was, in my biased opinion, the best game of the 2016 season, Penn State will look to get revenge on USC’s last second field goal win in the Rose Bowl.
Like the first playoff game, Penn State will need be hitting on all cylinders from start to finish in this game. In all likelihood, this could turn into another shootout, once again coming down to the last team with the ball winning it. In that case, let’s hope Joe Moorhead learned from last season’s mistake and does the sensible thing if faced with the same situation*****.
Other possibilities: All of the above, plus LSU, Stanford, Washington.
And there you have it folks. If Penn State is to become the first team to go 15-0 in college football, this could be one of the ways they get there. The Lions start their season against Akron in less than a month, so get excited!
*Except for that one time when Penn State was up 38-0 before Bill O’Brien decided to invoke the mercy rule.
**Play may have been a fluke, but game sure wasn’t.
***Yes, Ed Orgeron coached most of last season. No, he’s no longer auditioning for the job.
****They’ll put both in before they repeat last season’s debacle.
*****Not in the “do the thing I think would have worked in hindsight” sense, but in the “take a timeout and discuss your options” sense.