Penn State Football: Which Games Will Make or Break the Nittany Lions in 2012?
There was plenty of schedule news made on Thursday, with ESPN, NBC Sports and Big Ten Network confirming TV kickoff times for 115 games. Two of those games involve Penn State, with start times for Ohio (noon) and Navy (3:30 p.m.) being set by ESPN.
All of this schedule talk got us thinking about Penn State's 2012 schedule, the first to be coached by Bill O'Brien. Which games should be considered the must-wins, or the make-or-break games?
This season's schedule is a little tougher than usual from start to finish, with games against the defending MAC champions, a strong rushing team in Navy, a road trip to ACC country and an instate rivalry game against Temple filling the schedule before opening Big Ten play. Picking five games to single out was tough, but we did it.
But first, two quick honorable mentions:
The Hawkeyes have been a thorn in the Nittany Lions' paws over the course of the last decade. Penn State picked up a win last fall in State College, but this year Penn State will look to win its first game in Iowa City since 1999.
Penn State has dominated the series in the win column, but the feisty Owls have pushed Penn State for four quarters the past couple of meetings. If the Nittany Lions offense is not in gear when Temple comes to State College, this game could have "upset alert" written all over it once again.
Penn State is playing on ACC ground for just the third time since joining the Big Ten and will be looking for its first victory in ACC territory since blasting Maryland 70-7 in 1993.
Virginia is coming off its first winning season since 2007, and it appears as though head coach Mike London has things moving in the right direction. The Cavaliers are looking for a good, quality non-conference win to add to London's profile, and this could be it.
A loss for Penn State at Virginia would still be early enough to recover and learn from, which is good, or it could give Navy and Temple some good film to use to their advantage in the next two weeks.
Penn State hung on for a tight victory last year in snowy State College, pushing Joe Paterno into first place for all-time coaching victories by a Division I head coach.
Then, everything crumbled left and right before Penn State returned to the field.
But last year's meeting showed that Illinois has a defense that can clamp down on Penn State, and they play even tougher at home.
If Penn State's fresh secondary (all four 2011 starters are gone) struggles, junior Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase may be able to do enough damage to cause some problems. Illinois will also run the football, so Penn State's defensive line will need to be ready for a physical game in their first road Big Ten game the week following what could be a physical matchup with Temple.
The Ohio State Buckeyes may not be eligible for a postseason game this season, but Urban Meyer could use that to their advantage.
The Buckeyes will have nothing to lose this season, which means they can afford to take a few extra risks. And let us not forget that this will be a pretty talented team that will make the trip to State College in late October.
Penn State and Nebraska will play for the second time as Big Ten crossover rivals, and this year the Nittany Lions will be looking for revenge.
Each team could be considered a team capable of making a run to the Big Ten Championship Game, which means this could be a preview of the conference championship game that will be played just a few weeks later.
Penn State will have to find a way to slow down the running of Rex Burkhead, who got his licks in against the Penn State defense last fall. Slowing down the running game and forcing Taylor Martinez to beat them will be the game plan.
A loss could all but eliminate Penn State from contention in the Big Ten Leaders race with two games remaining.
Just as it was a year ago, Penn State's regular-season finale with the Wisconsin Badgers could have a spot in Indianapolis on the line for the Big Ten Championship Game.
Wisconsin buried Penn State last year in rainy Madison, and in the offseason the Badgers added quarterback transfer Danny O'Brien. O'Brien was being sought after by Penn State and head coach Bill O'Brien, and his decision to go to a conference (not to mention division) rival will surely have Penn State fans a little extra fired up for this one.
Wisconsin will enter the season as the favorites in the division and perhaps the entire conference. Penn State could be the biggest threat for Wisconsin's path to a third straight Big Ten championship and trip to Pasadena this season.
Right now, it would be easy to suggest that the winner of this one will head to Indianapolis, while the loser will risk having to make a trip to the Outback Bowl (or TicketCity Bowl). There is a big difference between the the Outback and the Rose Bowl.
Will Penn State avenge a humiliating loss from last year? Historically, Penn State has been good with picking up a revenge win at home, although recent Big Ten history might suggest otherwise; Michigan, Iowa and Ohio State have had Penn States number.
It is a new era, though, and time will tell if Bill O'Brien can have his team come up big in the higher-profile games, an area Penn State has fallen short of in recent years.