For the first time since 2014, Penn State has begun the season with three consecutive victories. While there are a few things to nit-pick about the Pitt victory in week two, overall the feeling should be overwhelmingly positive after two blowout shutout victories and a 19-point win against an in-state foe who treated the game like its Super Bowl.
As the Nittany Lions prepare for conference play, Saquon Barkley stands among the top class of Heisman candidates, the defense has been suffocating in allowing just one touchdown and 4.67 points per contest, and the team is displaying the overall depth and talent level needed for a championship run. Oh yeah, and the team stands ranked #4 in the nation, tops among Big Ten squads.
Things sure do look different than a year ago. Standing at 2-1, Penn State was preparing to be demolished by Michigan. If there even the slightest thought of the Nittany Lions claiming Big Ten supremacy at the time, it was certainly wiped out by the 49-10 drubbing against the Wolverines. A year later, Penn State suddenly finds themselves in a whole new position as the current favorite to win the Big Ten, and yes, represent the conference in the College Football Playoffs.
Despite all the positives, Penn State enters a Big Ten race on even-footing with everyone starting out at 0-0 (with the exception of Ohio State and Indiana, who met in week one). There are no surefire victories remaining (except perhaps Rutgers. Ok, probably Rutgers), and in the topsy-turvey world of college football, just about anything can happen on any given Saturday.
The Big Ten slate begins with the team’s first road game of the season, which happens to be a night game in Kinnick Stadium- a place that can often be a house of horrors for highly-ranked teams who have been taken down by the Iowa Hawkeyes. There’s a brutal three-game stretch that includes Michigan, Ohio State in Columbus, followed by another road contest against Michigan State. While Penn State has a history of blowing past Indiana at home, the Hoosiers still have a tendency to play tough against the harshest of opponents. A season-ending clash at Maryland could be a battle, as a Terps team on the rise will give everything they have in an attempt to down the team they view as their fiercest rival. And if Penn State is able to repeat as East Division champs, there will still be the West Division champ waiting in Indianapolis.
This is without mentioning the other factor that must be accounted for in a potential championship team- luck. Not only can the injury bug derail the best of teams, but an unlucky bounce of the ball (or bad call by an official....or poor field conditions...or a stiff wind at the wrong moment, etc. etc.) can make any team’s championship hopes vanish in the blink of an eye.
But here’s what we know, or at least think we know, after the first three weeks of the season. Penn State is the most complete team in the Big Ten. The offense is filled with playmakers who fit perfectly with Joe Moorhead’s scheme to keep defenses on their toes. The defense has been incredibly stingy, and the depth of the defensive line and secondary should be incredibly advantageous as the competition grows stronger. A reliable kicker and a punter who can easily flip the field give the team a huge advantage on special teams, and strong return and kick units have already proven to be incredibly valuable.
Sure, there are areas for improvement. The offensive line needs to do a better job with consistent run-blocking, and the speedy set of linebackers will need to learn to take better angles to avoid overrunning a play. But not only is this team deeply talented, they have already proven that we should never doubt them. With a group of exceptional leaders taking charge, we know one thing for certain- this team will give their absolute all for 60 minutes each week. After falling just short a season ago, this team is on a mission to prove they can stand at the pinnacle of the Big Ten once again- and in all of college football.
Buckle up those chinstraps, folks. It’s time to see what this team is made of.