As always, expectations are high in Happy Valley this year for a strong season from the Nittany Lion football team. After a disappointing loss to Florida last year in the Capital One Bowl, Penn State fans are anxious to see the team rebound and contend for a Big Ten title in 2011.
Below I take a look at each game, in chronological order, on the schedule in 2011 and try to predict what we can expect from this year's squad.
Game 1: Indiana State
The Sycamore are an FCS team who went 6-5 last year. The Nittany Lions have had no trouble with FCS or small conference FBS teams in the past. Since 2005, PSU is 17-0 against non-power conference opponents while outscoring these teams by a wide margin of 673 to 139.
It's difficult to envision a scenario where PSU could lose this game. The more telling sign will be to see how the offense performs in the first game. The running game struggled mightily at the beginning of last year, so a big game from Silas Redd to start the year would be a huge lift. With Alabama looming in the next contest, it will also be crucial to establish a comfort level with the passing game.
Game 2: Alabama
The Tide, ranked No. 1 at the time, man-handled the Nittany Lions 24-3 in Tuscaloosa last season. Alabama has lost many key pieces including Heisman Trophy winning RB Mark Ingram, QB Greg McIlroy, and WR Julio Jones. However, Alabama is projected to have the best linebackers and defensive backfield in the nation, and will rely on Trent Richardson for their offensive attack. Richardson gained over 700 yards last season as Ingram's back-up, averaging 6.2 yards per carry. According to Lindy's, the Tide are the preseason No. 2 team in the country for the upcoming season.
Expecting a win in this game is asking a lot of the home team, but the home atmosphere and a less-experienced opponent could help the Nittany Lions to be competitive. A win here would catapult expectations for the rest of the season, but even just a strong performance against one of the nation's most successful teams over the past few seasons would give the team valuable confidence and experience for the Big Ten season.
Game 3: At Temple
Penn State has owned this in-state rivalry, going 5-0 against the Owls since 2005 (and outscoring Temple 176-22 in those games). Temple has had a resurgence lately though, reaching their first bowl game two years ago and going 8-4 last season. The Owls also gave the Nittany Lions a big scare last season, holding onto a lead until the fourth quarter before finally falling 22-13. However, Temple will be under the control of a new coach this season after the departure of Al Golden.
After the game with Alabama, there is definitely the potential for a sub-par performance in this game. However, the large talent advantage and masses of Nittany Lion fans making the trip to Philadelphia should be more than enough for PSU to continue their dominance over Temple.
Game 4: Eastern Michigan
The season wouldn't feel right without an opponent from the Mid-American conference. Eastern Michigan went only 2-10 last year and I have found no reason to believe they will provide much of a challenge. See the numbers posted for the Indiana State game for how dominant Penn State has been against non-power conference opponents in recent years.
Game 5: At Indiana
Unlike the last two Big Ten openers against strong Iowa Hawkeye teams, the Hoosiers should be a much easier conference opener. Penn State beat the Hoosiers handily 41-24 in the nation's capital last season, and is 4-0 against Indiana since 2005. The Hoosiers had a pathetic defense last year that likely will not be much better this season, and also lost their quarterback to graduation.
While no road game in the Big Ten is easy, I expect Penn State will be able to take care of business in this contest fairly easily.
Game 6: Iowa
The Hawkeyes have been a thorn in the side of the Nittany Lions for several years now. Iowa won at home last season 24-3, and have won three of the four contests against PSU since 2005. However, the Hawkeyes lost QB Ricky Stanzi and the core of their strong interior defense from a year ago and are not projected to be quite as good. They do, however, return a solid running back in Marcus Coker and an elite receiver in Marvin McNutt.
This season would be a great opportunity to get some payback on the Hawkeyes, but the Iowa offensive and defensive lines have dominated Penn State in the trenches in each of the last few seasons. I would tend to think that Penn State could break through this year, but not with a large amount of confidence. The Penn State offensive line will hopefully be playing well together by this point in the season and be able to protect the quarterback and provide some holes in the running game.
Game 7: Purdue
While PSU did not play the Boilermakers in 2010, the Nittany Lions are 4-0 against Purdue since 2005. They have outscored the Boilermakers 91-40 in these games. Purdue has the potential to be a little better than last season, but will be without top defender and first round draft-pick Ryan Kerrigan and also without a clear QB to begin the season.
Though they have a solid roster, the Boilermakers don't really present much of a threat to Penn State. The Nittany Lions have a good history of winning against these types of opponents, particularly at home. We should be able to count this one as a victory without much hesitation.
Game 8: At Northwestern
Wildcat QB Dan Persa should be back to true form at this point in the season after returning from season-ending injury a year ago. Persa and the Wildcats got up early on PSU a year ago before the Nittany Lions stormed back to win 35-21 at Beaver Stadium. Penn State has owned the Wildcats of last, winning all four contests since 2005. The Wildcats are looking to improve upon a very porous defense from last season.
This game will likely be close and has the potential to be high scoring, but the Nittany Lions have to be the favorite. Penn State has the potential to be on a substantial winning streak heading into this game, and some strong momentum should help them to come out on top against Northwestern.
Game 9: Illinois
The Fighting Illini came into Happy Valley a year ago on Homecoming and completely embarrassed the Nittany Lions by a count of 33-13. However, the Nittany Lions are still 4-2 against Illinois since 2005 with a winning margin of 195-123. Illinois has a good group of returning players, including the QB, top WR, and most of the defensive backfield.
The result of last season's affair certainly raises a lot of doubt for this game, but Penn State should be the better team. It will be very tough for a team like Illinois to beat PSU two years in a row in Happy Valley. I suspect the Nittany Lions might win this one fairly convincingly, but certainly a loss is not out of the question.
Game 10: Nebraska
This game begins the brutal three-game stretch the Lions have to end the season. PSU has not played Nebraska since 2003, but will be seeing plenty of the conference's newest member in years to come as the two will play each season as cross-divisional rivals. In the last contests, Penn State won 40-7 in Happy Valley in 2002 but lost 10-18 in Lincoln in 2003. The Huskers are ranked No. 9 in Lindy's preseason poll, and are expected to have one of the best defenses in the country. Returning QB Taylor Martinez also looks to lead a revamped offense that will attempt to feature a power running attack.
This game will be different than other conference games since it is against an unfamiliar opponent. This will likely be a low-scoring affair, and PSU will need a huge performance from the defense in order to stay in the game. The Lions always have a fighting chance at home, but this one will be a tough one to pull out. Hopefully a good experience from the Alabama game will help Joe Paterno's squad here.
Game 11: At Ohio State
The good news for this game is that Terrelle Pryor and Jim Tressel will no longer be opponents in this contest. The bad news is that all of the suspended Buckeye players will be back and should be in mid-season form at this juncture. Ohio State pounded PSU in Columbus last season 38-14, and have won four of the six contests against the Nittany Lions since 2005. Despite all of the mayhem surrounding the Buckeyes, they are ranked preseason No. 14 in Lindy's poll.
It is really difficult to tell what to expect from Ohio State for this season. This will definitely not be an easy contest to win, on the road against one of the nation's top teams over the past decade. Still, one would think that getting a win this year against the Buckeye's would be much easier than in the past. I would love to see PSU come out on top in this one, but it is asking a lot to expect that as an outcome.
Game 12: Wisconsin
PSU avoided the Badgers last year in their exceptional season that ended with a close loss in the Rose Bowl to TCU. The Nittany Lions have been pretty successful against Wisconsin in recent years though, winning three of the four contests since 2005 and outscoring the Badgers by a mark of 124-41 in those games. Wisconsin returns an exceptional group of running backs; John Clay, James White, and Montee Ball are all among the Big Ten's best. The only substantial loss for the Badgers will be at the quarterback position. For the last game of the season though, the new QB should be very comfortable with the offense.
Wisconsin is Lindy's preseason No. 17 team, but has the potential to have another dominant campaign similar to last season. Having this game at home will again be a huge help, but the Badgers will be a formidable opponent. PSU is usually good at stopping the run, and if the defense can shut down the Badger's strength then the Lions will have a very good chance of winning this game. I would expect the Lions to have a solid chance of winning this game, but it certainly will not be easy.
Other than the Alabama game, the Lions have a very favorable schedule to start the season and will need a hot start to conference play in order to earn a berth in the first ever Big Ten championship game. With home games against Wisconsin and Nebraska, the Nittany Lions have a solid chance at winning a good chunk of their games against the other top teams in the conference and a conference title is not out of the question.
Penn State has many question marks of their own, with an unknown starting quarterback and a offensive line that loses it's best player in Stefen Wiesnewski. The defense also had a sub-standard season a year ago and will need to be much better if the Lions are going to win the Big Ten this year.
I fully expect at least a nine- or 10-win season from the 2011 Penn State team, and hold out reasonable hope for a conference title and BCS bowl appearance.