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Early Lookahead At Penn State’s 2018 Schedule

Penn State is set to face four top 12 teams in 2018, but the Nittany Lions will get three of those games in the friendly confines of Beaver Stadium.

NCAA Football: Georgia State at Penn State Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

College basketball is over, so it begs the question — is it now college football season? It’s tough to say, but yes, it is unequivocally college football season. That means it’s about time we take a closer look at Penn State’s schedule in 2018, and see just how difficult the Nittany Lions’ path to the College Football Playoff truly is.

Note: The ranking to the right of each school is Bill Connelly’s S&P+ projected ranking. For reference, Bill’s model has Penn State at No. 8.

September 1: Appalachian State Mountaineers (No. 63)

Before we get into anything, let’s all have a good laugh at Michigan’s expense:

Hail to the victors! Anyway...

Penn State had a cakewalk against Akron to open the 2017 season, but that won’t be the case in 2018. Folks, Appalachian State is good. Like, could definitely maybe potentially upset Penn State “good.” Bill Connelly has the Mountaineers as one of the top three returning teams (they’re all pretty close) in the Sun Belt, and his S&P+ ranking has them at No. 63 overall, which puts them above Power Five bowl teams like Kentucky, Cal, and Virginia.

App State will have to be replace departing senior QB Taylor Lamb, which is good news for Penn State, but the Mountaineers still have plenty of talent. Veteran running back Jalin Moore is back, having already run for 3,170 yards during his three-year career, and should see an even heavier load next season. They also return a solid group on defense, especially in the secondary, led by Clifton Duck and Tae Hayes, two really good defensive backs who combined for 10 interceptions last year.

Should Penn State beat Appalachian State? Absolutely. But Scott Satterfield’s program is no joke, having gone 30-9 the previous three seasons with two conference championships to boot. The Nittany Lions will get a good test from the Mountaineers, who very well could be the best non-conference team on Penn State’s schedule.

September 8: at Pittsburgh Panthers (No. 45)

The last time the Nittany Lions played at Pittsburgh this happened:

As Trace McSorley walked off the field that day, he was ridiculed, mocked, and perhaps worst of all, doubted. Fast forward two years, and McSorley is now the best freaking quarterback in the country. If you don’t think revenge is still on his mind, you’ll never understand how Trace is wired.

Revenge factor aside, Pitt is a 5-7 football team that is tasked with having to replace quite a few guys who did the football thing really well — DB Jordan Whitehead, WR/RB Quadree Henderson, OT Brian O’Neill, and WR Jester Weah. Sure, they’ll have a nice duo at running back in Darrin Hall and Qadree Ollison, but this is a program that’s trending in the wrong direction. Unless true sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett takes a massive jump, Pitt will continue to teeter as a bowl-eligible team.

I don’t doubt the Panthers will be up for the Penn State game — it’s literally all Pat Narduzzi cares about — but the Nittany Lions are the superior team. Prepare for another butt whipping, fellas.

September 15: Kent State Golden Flashes (No. 127)

Penn State most recently played Kent State just a couple years ago when the Nittany Lions opened up the 2016 season with the Golden Flashes. Quite a bit has changed since then — Penn State went onto win 21 games since then, while Kent State hasn’t done, uh, quite as well, winning only five. The Golden Flashes are under new management, though, as 31-year-old Sean Lewis takes over from Paul Haynes. Lewis is a Dino Babers disciple, having been Babers’ Co-Offensive Coordinator the past three seasons — one year at Bowling Green, and two years at Syracuse — so it should come as no surprise that Kent State will look to air it out.

Beyond that, there’s really not much else to say about the Golden Flashes because, quite honestly, they suck. This should be an easy blowout victory for the Nittany Lions, and a game that has the backups (#StevensTime) in by the end of the third quarter.

September 21: at Illinois Fighting Illini (No. 99)

Penn State opens up Big Ten play on the road in Champaign where they’ll face the Illini on a Friday night. Yes, not Saturday...Friday. Thank you, Jim Delany, for changing something that didn’t need to be changed, you melting hippo.

As for the Illini, they’ve been pretty freaking terrible under Lovie Smith, totaling an impressive 2-16 record in the Big Ten the past two seasons. Now sure, Smith wasn’t exactly taking over a program with the cupboard stocked full, but being worse than Rutgers during the same timeframe — not a good look.

Perhaps though, there is reason for optimism? Well, not exactly. Bill Connelly has Illinois as the third-worst Power 5 team in the country next season, only ahead of Kansas and Oregon State. Honestly, Illinois doesn’t return much of anything, and while Smith has kind of recruited better, it hasn’t been at the level that will push the Illini from the cellar of the Big Ten. This should be another easy victory for the Nittany Lions.

September 29: Ohio State Buckeyes (No. 1)

For the first time since 2006, Penn State and Ohio State will square off in September, and this one should be a doozy, folks. The biggest question for Ohio State is who will replace JT Barrett? Redshirt sophomore Dwayne Haskins appears to be the favorite, and though his time has been limited, he looks like he’ll be a good one. Although he’s not the runner JT Barrett was, his arm talent can’t be questioned, so he should be able to stretch the field better than Barrett did.

Fortunately for Penn State, Haskins will only be making his 5th career start when the Buckeyes make the trek to Happy Valley, and his first “true” start on the road (Ohio State does play TCU at Jerry’s World, though). Beaver Stadium is a lovely place to spend a Saturday night in the fall...except if you’re the opposing team’s quarterback. Because then it is the opposite of lovely. The Nittany Lions are 20-1 in their last 21 contests at home, so not exactly the easiest place for a young quarterback to work out the road jitters.

Outside of quarterback, the Buckeyes really don’t have too many other glaring question marks offensively. JK Dobbins absolutely terrifies me so let’s hope Urban keeps giving carries to Mike Webber. The Buckeyes return all six wide receivers from last year, and though none of them are bonafide No. 1 wideouts, it’s still a solid group. The offensive line should be pretty good too, although they do lose Jamarco Jones and Billy Price, two 1st Team All-Big Ten players.

Defensively, it’s a strong unit across the board, but probably a step down from last year. The defensive line won’t be as ridiculous without Sam Hubbard and Tyquan Lewis, but a Nick Bosa-Chase Young defensive end duo might be tops in the Big Ten. The Buckeyes lose Jerome Baker and Chris Worley at linebacker, but they had good depth at the position, with Tuf Borland (note: Borland is out until at least September with an achilles), Malik Harrison, and Baron Browning ready to take the reigns. I like Jordan Fuller at safety, but there’s some turnover in the backend as well with Denzel Ward and Damon Webb gone.

Ohio State is going to be Ohio State — i.e. a top 10 team that can win the National Championship. I’d expect the Buckeyes to be slight favorites (-2.5?) going into the game, but this is pretty much a toss up. Penn State getting them at Beaver Stadium early in the season while they still break in Haskins is a real positive. Fully expect College Gameday in town, and for Happy Valley to be buzzing with an electricity similar to last year’s Michigan weekend.

October 6: Bye

I used to hate bye weeks, but in recent years, I’ve come to really enjoy them. It’s nice to have a week off from worrying about Penn State, and just enjoying a college football saturday instead. Here are the big match-ups that weekend:

  • Florida State at Miami
  • Notre Dame at Virginia Tech
  • Nebraska at Wisconsin
  • LSU at Florida
  • Texas vs Oklahoma

October 13: Michigan State Spartans (No. 11)

Last year when I wrote this thing, I said Michigan State was a flaming piece of hot garbage until proven otherwise. Well, they proved otherwise, beating Penn State 27-24 en route to a 10-3 season. Now, the Spartans return essentially their whole team, only losing OL Brian Allen, DE Demetrius Cooper, and LB Chris Frey from their starting unit.

There’s very few holes for Sparty — good defense, mixed with a solid offense. But the success of Michigan State’s season hinges on QB Brian Lewerke, who was a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde player in 2017. He absolutely torched Penn State, throwing for 400 yards in sloppy conditions, but also had his struggles, like his 2-for-14 performance against Maryland just two weeks later. If he takes that next step into being an All-Conference player — something he’s totally capable of — the Spartans might just be the favorites for the conference crown in 2018.

You’ll sense a theme here, but Penn State getting this game at home and off a bye is yuge. I also wouldn’t be surprised if this is your Whiteout 2018 game. Ohio State and Michigan have traded Whiteouts since 2012, so it makes some sense to switch it up a bit. Sparty certainly fits the bill — a probable 5-0 top 10 team with the revenge factor thrown in.

October 20: at Indiana Hoosiers (No. 58)

The Hoosiers have to replace quite a bit of production, losing stalwarts like WR Simmie Cobbs, TE Ian Thomas, LBs Tegray Scales and Chris Covington, and CB Rashad Fant. Indiana also loses Richard Lagow, but honestly, I don’t know how much that hurts them. Lagow was the definition of a mediocre quarterback, and the Hoosiers have a solid option in Peyton Ramsey waiting in the wings.

With a more mobile option taking over at quarterback, I’d expect to see the Hoosiers lean more on their run game than they have in the past. They return all five starting offensive linemen, and freshman RB Morgan Ellison flashed at times last season. There’s still some solid options on the outside like WR Nick Westbrook (who is returning from injury), but Ramsey just isn’t the passer to really be effective in a passing heavy attack.

Penn State always struggles in Bloomington...almost at a weird level. Since 2004 the Nittany Lions are 5-1 at Indiana, but four of those wins are by less than a touchdown. The only one that wasn’t? 2016 when Penn State won by 14, a game where the Nittany Lions trailed going into the 4th quarter. So as is tradition, this will most likely be a tough game, especially considering the Nittany Lions will be coming off a (probable) primetime game against Sparty. Obviously, a game Penn State should win, but goodness does this look like a trap game.

October 27: Iowa Hawkeyes (No. 36)

There’s a decent amount of turnover in Iowa City. Akrum Wadley is gone. James Daniels and Sean Welsh are gone from the offensive line. Josey Jewell, along with the rest of the linebacker core, is gone. And one of the best cornerbacks in the country, Joshua Jackson, is also gone.

It’s not all bad for Iowa, though. Nate Stanley, for the most part, was really freaking good for the Hawkeyes last season, and they’ll need him to carry the load even more in 2018. He’ll have his top two options out wide back, as WR Nick Easley and TE Noah Fant return to give Iowa a solid duo offensively.

Perhaps I still just have PTSD from last year’s game, but Iowa still has some dynamic defensive linemen — Anthony Nelson, Parker Hesse, and AJ Epenesa are all back. The former five-star Epenesa in particular could be in for a big year, and could develop to be an All-Big Ten performer.

Here’s the thing with Iowa, though: as long as you don’t play them at Kinnick, you usually don’t have anything to worry about. They’ll be a solid team like they always are, but this game shouldn’t worry folks too much. Although, as you probably already know, it starts a really difficult three-game stretch.

November 3: at Michigan Wolverines (No. 10)

The Wolverines are going to be better in 2018, but just how good could depend upon the ruling by the NCAA in Shea Patterson’s transfer. Now I know what you’re thinking — “Pat, how hasn’t the NCAA made a ruling yet? It’s been months!” To which I say, nope, no ruling yet! But fear not, folks, I’m sure whatever conclusion the NCAA comes to, it will make total sense. 100% sure of that.

Here’s what I’ll say about Patterson: Is he an upgrade over the rest of the QBs on the roster? Yes, clearly so. But as much as having a good quarterback can fix offensive problems, it’s still Jim Harbaugh’s offense. And I don’t mean this as a troll because Michigan can definitely beat Penn State, but Harbaugh is not evolving with the game. His solution to fixing his offense was hiring Jim McElwain who should never be hired to fix an offense. What’s that saying about putting lipstick on a pig? Because Patterson is the lipstick, and a Harbaugh/McElwain offense is the shark pig.

Defensively, though, Michigan might have the best defense in the Big Ten. There’s a ton of talent on that side of the ball. Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich getting after the quarterback, Devin Bush and Khaleke Hudson cleaning up at linebacker, and Lavert Hill flipping off the opposing team in the secondary — dangerous, dangerous, dangerous unit.

This will be Penn State’s toughest road test, and the Wolverines getting their bye the week before only makes it more difficult for the Nittany Lions. What happens with Shea Patterson plays a big part in this one, too.

November 10: Wisconsin Badgers (No. 12)

Paul Chryst has the Wisconsin program clicking on all cylinders, winning the Big Ten West the previous two years, and 2018 should be no different for the Badgers. While the defense will be in a rebuilding mode — especially on the backend — defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard will be able to lean on linebackers Ryan Connelly and T.J. Edwards, the top two returning tacklers from last year’s unit.

Where the Badgers look truly dangerous though is...offense? Yup, offense. Wisconsin returns freshman sensation Jonathan Taylor at running back, and with all five starters returning along the offensive line, the sky is the limit for Taylor. Of course, QB Alex Hornibrook is back, and while he won’t light the world on fire, he’s a fine game manager for the offense. Toss in that rising sophomore wide receiver Danny Davis III looks like a legitimate threat out wide, and the Badgers look like a formidable foe for the Big Ten title.

Keeping with our theme, the Nittany Lions getting this game inside the friendly confines of Beaver Stadium is suh-weet. But man, having Iowa, Michigan, and then Wisconsin in back-to-back-to-back weeks is tough. Couldn’t we have gotten like Purdue (no offense, Coach Brohm) or something here instead?

November 17: at Rutgers Scarlet Knights (No. 84)


November 24: Maryland Terrapins (No. 80)

I was all in on Maryland last season until all of their quarterbacks broke, and that is my key to their season in 2018 — don’t break all your quarterbacks. If the quarterbacks (Kasim Hill and Tyrell Pigrome) can stay healthy (apparently a big issue with the Maryland program), they should have a pretty solid rushing attack, with a fun running back duo of Ty Johnson and Lorenzo Harrison III along side them. There’s also some good talent up front with Derwin Gray, Damian Prince, and Terrance Davis returning along the offensive line, but all three are out for the spring with injuries.

Defensively, the defensive line has some potential with Jessie Aniebonam (who, you guessed it, is coming off a season-ending injury) and Auburn-turned-JUCO transfer Byron Cowart manning the edges. Honestly, it can’t be much worse than last year’s defensive line, which was pretty much had a nonexistent pass rush.

I like D.J. Durkin. He’s recruited well, but this program is still a year or two away from really making an impact. I mean, staying healthy for one full season would be a positive.

December 1: Big Ten Championship

There is not a more beautiful place in the world than Indianapolis on the first day of December. Hope to be there with you, folks.