12. Villanova (Sept. 25, Home)
If you’re looking for the surefire win on Penn State’s schedule, here you go. As long as the Nittany Lions come out focused, this game should no longer be competitive by the second quarter.
11. Michigan State (Nov. 27, Away)
It wasn’t long ago that Michigan State was winning regular Big Ten crowns and making an appearance in the playoffs. Now, Mel Tucker has a major rebuilding job on his hands only made much more difficult with the large exodus of transfers this offseason. Unless disaster ensues by season’s end, the achingly beautiful Land-Grant Trophy should be staying in Happy Valley.
10. Illinois (Oct. 23, Noon, Home)
Bret Bielema found success in his first stint in the Big Ten, but has some work to do before we find out if he can replicate his glory days with the Badgers. This should make for a happy Homecoming week for the Nittany Lion faithful.
9. Maryland (Nov. 6, Away)
The Terps have been gradually adding more talent to the roster during the past few recruiting cycles, but it’s still not clear how that will translate to wins. The 2020 season was a bit of a wash, as four games were canceled. Maryland managed a 2-3 record in the games that were played, and as you remember, defeated the Nittany Lions for the third time in program history during the horrendous 0-5 start. Penn State should enter the game in much better shape this time around.
8. Rutgers (Nov. 20, Home)
While this never developed into any type of rivalry, the Scarlet Knights could make things interesting with Greg Schiano showing a marked improvement in his first season back with the team. While Rutgers still has a way to go, they are showing signs of becoming a much more competitive program, and Penn State will not be able to sleepwalk through this game as thy have done at times in the past.
7. Ball State (Sept. 11, 3:30 p.m., Home)
All apologies for being repetitive, but this could be a much tougher game if you’re expecting a typical early-season MAC warm-up game. Ball State finished 2020 in the top 25, and now return all but one starter from both sides of the ball. They are a well-coached team, and will come out playing with their hair on fire as they seek a program-defining victory. This could turn into a battle, especially if the Nittany Lion offense doesn’t come out firing on all cylinders.
6. Indiana (Oct. 2, Home)
This is where things get tricky, and you can make a strong case that this should be higher on the list. We won’t go into many details, but let’s just say the 2020 season opener in Bloomington was quite memorable on its own, before helping lead to the first 0-5 start in program history. The Nittany Lions will be motivated to finally set things right, and it will be needed as the Hoosiers may have turned a corner to become a much bigger threat in the Big Ten.
5. Iowa (Oct. 9, Away)
Trips to Kinnick are always memorable. While leaving Iowa City with a victory is never an easy task, the challenge will be much greater this year as Iowa is returning the bulk of its talent following a season that ended with a six-game winning streak. No announcement on time yet, but we can expect a prime time kickoff while hoping it starts at noon.
4. Michigan (Nov. 13, Home)
Michigan is never as good as the expectations heading into the season. But they still are littered with talent, and there will always be excitement whenever those winged helmets come rushing out on the field. Hopefully it delivers, as this game could have some huge implications thanks to the mid-November date.
3. Wisconsin (Sept. 4, Noon, Away)
This is Penn State’s biggest season opener in years, with the result setting the tone for both teams in 2021. This game will be especially crucial for the Nittany Lions, who will go on to face Ball State, Auburn, Iowa and Ohio State in the first two months of the season. After many years of opening with a warm-up game, there’s finally a reason for Nittany Lions fans to get nervous entering the first game of the season.
2. Auburn (Sept. 18, 7:30 p.m., Home)
This game marks the first time an SEC program will visit Beaver Stadium since Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide made the trip in 2011. It also helps that Auburn can be typically found in the top 25, with a collection of talent that will see many go onto the NFL. This early-season battle will also be the ABC prime time game of the week, which will also serve as the White Out game, as the Nittany Lion faithful will ensure a hostile environment for the Tigers. Add all that up, and you can already start to feel the electricity in the air throughout Happy Valley.
#1. Ohio State (Oct. 30, Away)
While I am not too optimistic about the good guys coming out of Columbus with a victory, this is absolutely Penn State’s biggest opportunity of 2021. A win against the Buckeyes would have major implications for the conference crown and playoff race, as well as possibly becoming a more regular contender to topple the Buckeyes. As long as Ohio State continues to be the commanding program in the Big Ten, this game will always top the list.