We’re inching closer to the start of the 2018 season, with just a little more than two months separating us from Penn State’s week one clash against Appalachian State. Despite a non-conference slate with no real marquee matchups, the 2018 schedule is still plenty intriguing- especially the six-game stretch from Sept. 29 through Nov. 10 when the Nittany Lions could be facing off with four different opponents ranked in the top 10.
The criteria for this list is simple and subjective- as I look ahead at the 2018 season, which games am I most excited about watching during the upcoming season?
12. Kent State (Sept. 15, Noon)
Despite all of the talent that comes out of Northeast Ohio, Kent State is perennially one of the worst teams in the nation, appearing in just two bowl games in program history. This season shouldn’t be much different, with the Golden Flashes coming off a 2-10 season with just one victory against an FBS squad. Even with Penn State breaking in some new starters at several key spots, this game should be in-hand by halftime, with the benches being cleared in the second half. The most stressful part of the day for fans will be choosing which beer to grab from the cooler.
11. Illinois (Sept. 21, 9 p.m.)
Time will tell if Lovie Smith can turn things around in Champaign, but it won’t be this season as Illinois is coming off a 2-10 campaign that ended with 10 consecutive losses. The Illini have many issues to fix on offense, and Trace McSorley and co. should have no trouble pulling away early. To make matters worse, this game will kick off at 9 p.m. on a Friday, giving it the feel of a scrimmage rather than a Big Ten opener. At least it will result in a stress-free Saturday once everyone recovers from a late night.
10. Rutgers (Nov. 17)
Ugh. We have to play Rutgers every year. Let’s just leave it at that.
9. Appalachian State (Sept. 1)
Appalachian State is a better football program than they receive credit for, and Penn State would easily have been on upset alert just a few years back. The Mountaineers have won back-to-back Sun Belt championships, and crushed Toledo 34-0 to wrap up the 2017 season in the Dollar General Bowl. While Penn State should have no problem pulling away, don’t be surprised if Appalachian State finds a way to keep things interesting for a bit in the season opener. The Mountaineers have built their program with stingy defenses, and it could take the Nittany Lions offense a few series to find their groove.
8. Maryland (Nov. 24)
Perhaps one of these years Maryland will start making noise in the Big Ten. Unfortunately, Penn State will be overlooked during the last week of the regular season as many rivalry games with major implications take place. For now, the only way to see this game moving up the rankings is if Penn State is playing to clinch a division championship and secure a spot to play in Indianapolis the following weekend.
7. Indiana (Oct. 20)
Indiana can be a tough out in Bloomington, giving several highly ranked teams a scare during the past several years. But they just haven’t been able to pull off that one major upset despite a few extremely close calls. This could easily be a trap game for Penn State, immediately following what could be a huge showdown with Michigan State and smack dab in the middle of an incredibly difficult six-game stretch. This game seems destined for a noon kickoff, but let’s hope the networks find a reason to air this one later in the day to avoid a sleepy start in Bloomington.
6. Pitt (Sept. 8, 8 p.m.)
This series has lost its luster since being re-ignited in 2016. It is the ABC prime time game of the week, and should offer an outstanding atmosphere. With Pitt losing many of its best players from a year ago, it’s hard to see this one go down to the wire, even if the Panthers treat this game as its Super Bowl (which they will).
5. Iowa (Oct. 27)
Iowa is always difficult to predict each year- they could push for an undefeated season, or finish 4-8. While the Hawkeyes return a solid nucleus, they also lose some standouts from a year ago- including Akrum Wadley, an underrated running back who often carried the offense. While Penn State should be a solid favorite, they won’t get away with peeking ahead to clashes with Michigan and Wisconsin in the the following weeks.
4. Michigan (Nov. 3)
This is where things become really interesting, as the Nittany Lions head into their biggest road clash of the season. Penn State and Michigan will always move the needle nationally, and this year could feature two top 10 teams in a huge November match-up. Make all the 8-4/third and fourth place in the division jokes you want, but Michigan has a chance to be a legit playoff contender in 2018. While the preseason hype is a little too much at this point (as is always the case with Michigan), the Wolverines were incredibly young last season and could turn the corner with a more experienced team if they can iron out the problems on offense that prevented them from beating any of the top-tier teams on the schedule a year ago.
3. Michigan State (Oct. 13)
The Spartans were well ahead of schedule as they pushed for a division title with a very young line-up in 2017. Now they are prepared to return to their recent form when they were in the mix for a Big Ten title and playoff spot each year before crashing to earth in 2016 with a 3-9 record. Penn State will definitely have revenge on its mind after a lackluster performance in East Lansing dashed any playoff hopes a year ago.
2. Wisconsin (Nov. 10)
Depending how quickly Penn State’s defense gels, this could end up being one of the biggest games of the college football season. Wisconsin is always difficult to beat with their perennially stout defense, talented offensive line and strong running game. Many pundits are considering the Badgers as a Big Ten favorite and playoff contender, and it’s easy to see why when you consider all the talent they return from a team that came oh-so-close to accomplishing both of these things in 2017. Fortunately, the game will be in Beaver Stadium, and the atmosphere will be breathtaking. This should be a fascinating match-up between two teams who look to have completely different styles of play.
1. Ohio State (Sept. 29)
Was there ever any doubt the Buckeyes would be at the top of the list once again? Ohio State continues to be the golden standard of the Big Ten, and until they are knocked off their perch for an extended period, they will continue to be Penn State’s biggest game of the year as they try to dethrone them. Urban Meyer has loaded the Buckeyes with so much talent, you can count on them to be a perennial national title contender, regardless of how many starters they are replacing. This will stand as one of college football’s biggest and most entertaining clashes on an annual basis for the foreseeable future, and 2018 certainly won’t be any difference as the teams battle it out early in the season in Beaver Stadium.