Penn State could play its way in to some meaningful games this season, although ensuring that a trip to the Big Ten championship game is on the line in the regular season finale for a second straight year will require maneuvering through a challenging schedule.
At Purdue, Nov. 3
Purdue is the team nobody should be caught sleeping on this season in the Big Ten. The Boilermakers, playing at home, could be dangerous with their offensive abilities, although their wide receiver depth could catch up to them as the season rolls along.
Purdue was average on offense last season, scoring an average of 26.9 points per game in 2011 (good for 60th in the nation). Their scoring averaged nearly 30 points per game in games played at home, with the Boilermakers scoring 29.9 ppg in seven home games. Purdue also showed a knack for picking up the scoring as the Big Ten schedule progressed, seeing their scoring average increase from 21.6 ppg in October (Notre Dame, Minnesota, Penn State, Illinois) to 24.3 ppg in November (Wisconsin, Ohio State, Iowa, Indiana).
If Purdue can get its passing game on track and show an ability to run the football well, then watch out for this one.
At Nebraska, Nov. 10
The annual matchup between new crossover rivals between historic programs will be the first for Penn State in Lincoln for a Big Ten contest. The Huskers scored a tough defensive victory last season in emotional Happy Valley and the recipe for Big Red will be similar to the winning formula last November: Hand the football to Rex Burkhead and put Taylor Martinez in to position to not have to do too much in the passing game.
Last season Burkhead rushed for 121 yards and a touchdown against Penn State, and he could be in store for another productive outing in this one with Penn State's health a legitimate concern this season. Defensive end Pete Massaro and linebacker Michael Mauti both return from ACL injuries and the secondary will be playing a number of new starters.
This could be one of the toughest games on the schedule this season, as previously noted.
Indiana, Nov. 17
It was a woeful season for for the Hoosiers in the first year of the Kevin Wilson era. Not too much went right for Indiana, and it will be a while before any changes start to take form. Indiana averaged 21.4 ppg last season (101st) and allowed 37.3 ppg (114th). Indiana allowed 40.7 ppg in November of last season (Ohio State, Michigan State, Purdue). The Hoosiers allowed 40.7 ppg on the road last season.
Indiana did manage to keep things close with Penn State but failed to score its first victory against the blue and white in program history, losing 16-10 at home. It was closest game Indiana played on its Big Ten schedule last season.
Penn State has done well defending its home field against Indiana, winning by an average of 39-18 dating back to 1993 in games played at Beaver Stadium.
Wisconsin, Nov. 24
Revenge will be on the mind of over 100,000 fans in the final game of the regular season. After be soundly defeated in Madison last season and seeing the Wisconsin Badgers celebrating a Big Ten division title, Penn State will be looking forward to picking up some form of revenge this time around. Will the division once again be on the line? It could be.
Wisconsin looks to be in solid shape once again. Its offense ranked sixth in scoring (44.1 ppg) and 11th in rushing (235.57 ypg), but just 61st in passing (234.3 ypg). This year could see a bit more balance on the potent offense with the welcome addition of former Maryland quarterback Danny O'Brien, once a target of Penn State's Bill O'Brien (no relation).
The former Terps quarterback was an ACC Rookie of the Year and is looking to get back on track after a disappointing 2011 under new Maryland head coach Randy Edsall. The change of scenery will be nice with Heisman favorite Montee Ball back and looking to add another Heisman Trophy to the Wisconsin trophy cases.
To have this game mean anything for Penn State it will require getting through some tough games, including a difficult start to the November schedule.
Upset Alert: Purdue
As pointed out, Purdue is a team built to score a potential upset almost any week it takes the field. What makes this even more of a challenge for Penn State is it comes directly after a big game at home against Ohio State. Even more, this game in West Lafayette leads in to a big road game at Nebraska. If any game looks to be a trap game on Penn State's schedule this season, this is it.
Chalk It Up as a Victory: Indiana
Penn State has dominated this Big Ten series since joining the conference and that should not change this season. The Hoosiers are a long way from being able to compete head on with Penn State if the Nittany Lions have a healthy defense and even just an average offense.
Potentially Premature Prediction
This should be a challenging November schedule for Penn State. After the trap game at Purdue and a tough road test at Nebraska, Penn State will wrap up the regular season looking to build on the home field advantage.
If the Nittany Lions can somehow get out of those two road games with victories, then they will be ready to pounce on a potential spot in the Big Ten championship game with a pair of home games against Indiana and Wisconsin.
It will be a tall order to make this year's regular season finale mean as much as it did last year. Wisconsin will be the favorite in the division once again this year. Looking at things right now, a 2-2 record in November seems to make the most sense, with a loss at Nebraska and at home against the Badgers, but the momentum of the season could swing in favor of Penn State down the stretch, and that could be the unknown piece of the puzzle after Halloween.
Under the best case scenario, Penn State would go 4-0 of course, but even a 3-1 record might be enough to keep Penn State in the hunt for the Big Ten championship game berth from the Leaders Division. But will the offense have what it takes and will the defense remain healthy by the time the calendar gets to November?
Stats provided by CFBStats.com unless noted otherwise.
Kevin McGuire is the host of the No 2-Minute Warning podcast, managing editor of Nittany Lions Den and a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. Follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook and add him to your Google+ circle.