The season is still many months away, but that does not mean we cannot take a few minutes to take a peak at Penn State's 2012 schedule and guess at some of the keys to the game, right?
Following is a brief run-through of Penn State's schedule, starting with a home game against Ohio and culminating with a home game against Wisconsin. Could that final game have any significance riding on it for the Nittany Lions, as it did in 2011, or will this year's team struggle to find some wins?
Penn State will open the season against Ohio University, which is generally one of the top MAC programs in recent years. Ohio has potential to be a threat in week one with what is typically a decent running game.
However, Penn State has a strong track record against MAC competition, and a even stronger defense and overall offensive depth should be more than enough to pick up a win in the season opener.
Penn State takes to the road in the second game of the season, traveling to Richmond, Va. to play the Virginia Cavaliers.
Virginia is coming off a fine season under Mike London but loses four starters on the defensive line, which could be an advantage for Penn State early in the season. If Virginia's defensive line cannot make adjustments and get up to speed quick enough, the Nittany Lions could have an advantage in the trenches and create some room for Silas Redd or provide enough protection for the passing game.
When it comes to slowing down Navy, it is all about slowing down the effectiveness of the running game, fueled by the triple option. The best way to do that is not just have a solid defensive line, but linebackers who bring good ball awareness.
Fortunately for Penn State, this is a strength of the defense. When teams need to rely on the run as much as Navy does, they generally do not fare too well against Penn State, especially when the Nittany Lions have a hypothetical athletic advantage.
The Temple Owls continue to present problems for Penn State, but they just cannot seem to get over the hump against their in-state rivals. Could this year be different, without stud running back Bernard Pierce?
Temple will pick up a win against Penn State some year, but as long as the Nittany Lions can avoid a slow start and force Temple to pass the football, it may not happen this year. It will be interesting to see how, or if, former Penn State quarterback Kevin Newsome figures in to the picture at all for Temple.
Illinois will host Penn State in the Big Ten opener for both teams, and the Illini may be the toughest challenge yet for Penn State when they meet. They bring back plenty of starters despite some key losses, but they have everything it takes to beat Penn State, especially if the last two seasons are any indication.
Penn State will need to focus on quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who tends to start well early in the year. Scheelhaase has three starting wide receivers returning in 2012 under new head coach Tim Beckman, who is a good offensive coach. Find a way to stop the passing game with a young secondary sounds easier said than done, but this is exactly what will be the difference of the game for Penn State.
Northwestern can always be a pesky team, and it's good for one or two upsets any given season with Pat Fitzgerald as head coach. This year the Wildcats lose their top playmaker, quarterback Dan Persa, so it remains to be seen just how well this year's team will blend without its top offensive player.
Regardless, the key to success against Northwestern remains the ability to pound the football on the ground. Northwestern's defense is not too deep, and if Silas Redd and the running game can set the tone, a victory should not be far behind.
Iowa may have been shut down by Penn State last season, but until Penn State can win a game on the road against the Hawkeyes they will remain a team that frustrates the Nittany Lions. Iowa generally relies on its running game to have success against Penn State and other opponents, but it has been losing running backs at every corner it seems this offseason.
We will have to see what kind of shape Iowa's offense is in by the time this game is played, but if Penn State cannot figure out the defense and establish a rhythm in its own running game, it might not matter.
The Ohio State Buckeyes will be loaded on offense and defense with a combined 19 starters projected to return for Urban Meyer's first season. With so much talent coming back and with Meyer already generating major buzz in Columbus, this may be the toughest game on the schedule for Penn State, even if it is at home.
This will likely be a tight game if Penn State can bring its A-game, and in such a game it will be absolutely crucial to protect the football. Last season the offense depended more on the Wildcat offense rather than put the game in the hands of Matt McGloin, who tossed a couple interceptions returned for touchdowns in 2010. In order to protect this house, Penn State must protect the football.
Purdue will be no pushover in 2012, and at home it could be especially tricky. The Boilermakers have multiple quarterbacks who could bring different plays or styles to the field if used on a rotation. The question will be if Purdue can get consistent play from the quarterback position in 2012. If it can, it could have the offense to beat anyone on its schedule on any given week.
Penn State should focus on controlling the game clock, which means steady use of the running game and timely passing on third down. Purdue has what it takes to be a legitimate threat, but Penn State should have enough defense to hold off an upset bid.
Penn State visits Lincoln, Neb. for the first time in Big Ten competition (its last trip was against Nebraska as a Big 12 member), and it will be a battle of running games. Nebraska's Rex Burkhead will be one of the top running backs in the Big Ten this season, and he will have an offensive line that will have ideally found its stride by this point in the season.
Last season Burkhead rushed for 121 yards and a touchdown against Penn State while Penn State largely kept the Huskers' passing game in check with Taylor Martinez completing 13 of 26 passes for 143 yards. This one will come down to winning in the trenches on both sides of the ball. If it comes down to 3rd-and-1 situations, Nebraska probably has the edge right now, bu it will be the area Penn State needs to excel.
Indiana has yet to beat Penn State in football, and no matter what condition the Nittany Lions are in by the time this game rolls around that trend may still continue.
After a 1-11 season it is clear that Kevin Wilson has plenty of work to do in Bloomington, although the Hoosiers did give Penn State all sorts of trouble last season. Penn State hopes to have new life on offense this season, though, and gets the Hoosiers at home this season. Penn State should be able to pencil in a win with this game as Indiana works on improving. Penn State already has a decided edge on defense, and that should be more than enough to score a mid-November win in this one.
Wisconsin visits State College for the regular-season finale in 2012, and who knows if the game will carry the same importance it did in 2011, where the winner advanced to the Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis. While the Badgers may be the favorite in the division once again, considering Ohio State is ineligible in 2012 for postseason play, it still has some questions to answer with 11 total starters back from a team that reached—and lost—the Rose Bowl for a second straight season.
Montee Ball returns at running back, but Wisconsin loses Russell Wilson. Will they Badgers have a quarterback that can be as effective as Wilson was against Penn State? Who is to say Wisconsin won't be struggling down the stretch? So far away, this game is really tough to predict, but for now the key will be simple for Penn State. If the Nittany Lions can slow down Ball, who rushed for 156 yards and four touchdowns against Penn State last season, they have a decent chance of staying in the game and making a run for a win.
Of course, slowing down a potential Heisman favorite is always easier said than done, but if the defense stays healthy it is certainly not outlandish to think about.