Penn State starts the season 5-0, as they have for three of the past four years. The Nittany Lions have gone on the road twice, defeating Purdue in the season and conference opener, and handing Auburn one of its worst losses in recent memory. They handled Central Michigan and Ohio out of the MAC to close out the non-conference, then had what we all hope is their “dumb game of the year” against Northwestern before going on a bye.
If you look at the externals, it has been an exercise in explaining away the the accomplishments: Purdue is decent, but not great. Auburn is one of the worst teams in the SEC. Northwestern is arguably the worst team in the Big Ten. Central Michigan and Ohio are MAC teams. Therefore, beating those teams doesn’t prove Penn State is in the same category as the rest of the top 10.
Using that paradigm, what the Nittany Lions have accomplished so far isn’t necessarily out of the question. They have yet to beat a ranked team (Purdue might be ranked in the next polls, but that’s yet to be determined). They struggled against a really bad team. They failed to thoroughly put away a team that shouldn’t have given them much trouble. All in all, the road to 5-0 has been relatively pleasant.
Now, the Nittany Lions have their toughest test of the season. They will play two top 10 teams in three week, and sandwiched between them, a team that would have been ranked if not for their loss against the aforementioned Purdue team we agreed isn’t any good. How this three-week stretch goes will define how far the Lions can go this season, and whether they’re a playoff pretender, as Heather Dinich put it in the link above, or if they can usurp the Big Ten’s playoff spot from under Ohio State and Michigan.
The Buckeyes have looked unbeatable through six weeks. Michigan has too, in their own way. Unlike Ohio State, however, the Wolverines have looked vulnerable at times, and a team that can exploit their vulnerabilities should have no trouble putting them away.
Thus starts Penn State’s opportunity. Maryland had the offense to keep pace with the Wolverines, but didn’t have the defense to stop them. Iowa had the defense to slow Michigan down, but didn’t have the offense to chase them. Indiana, for all its faults, completed the blueprint the other two started, but couldn’t get out of its own way. All Penn State has to do is take the blueprint Maryland, Iowa, and Indiana so kindly handed them, and finish the job.
Penn State’s defining stretch is upon us. The Lions can go from “pretender” to “College Football Playoff shoo in” based on the next three weeks. And it starts with Michigan. Time to put the big boy pants on and prove the previous five weeks were no fluke.