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2011 schedule analysis: Penn State

My team-by-team look at 2011 schedules continues with the Penn State Nittany Lions.

Nonconference opponents (with 2010 records)

Sept. 3: Indiana State (6-5)

Sept. 10: Alabama (10-3)

Sept. 17: at Temple (8-4)

Sept. 24: Eastern Michigan (2-10)

Leaders division games

Oct. 1: at Indiana

Oct. 15: Purdue

Oct. 29: Illinois

Nov. 19: at Ohio State

Nov. 26: at Wisconsin

Crossover games

Oct. 8: Iowa

Oct. 22: at Northwestern

Nov. 12: Nebraska (protected)

No plays

Michigan

Michigan State

Minnesota

Gut-check game: Iowa. Kirk Ferentz and the Hawkeyes have tormented Penn State, winning three consecutive games and eight of the teams' past nine meetings. With an incredibly difficult closing stretch, Penn State must take of business early in Big Ten play and finally get over the hump against the Hawkeyes. Penn State gets the game at home, where it last beat Iowa (2007). The Lions' offense recently has struggled against the Hawkeyes, scoring a combined 13 points in the past two games.

Trap game: At Northwestern. The trip to Evanston falls during a stretch when Penn State plays four of five games at Beaver Stadium. A strong start against Iowa and Purdue will elevate the Lions' confidence, but they can't slip up against a Northwestern team that dominated the first half of last season's game. Wildcats quarterback Dan Persa, a Pennsylvania native, will be out to avenge his team's collapse in State College. After Northwestern, Penn State returns home to face Illinois and Nebraska.

Snoozer: Eastern Michigan. Penn State's final nonconference tuneup likely won't bring much drama. Eastern Michigan has been sputtering forever and endured losses of 73-20 to Ohio State and, more stunningly, 52-6 to Vanderbilt last season. Whether it's Matt McGloin or Rob Bolden at quarterback, Penn State's offense should have a big day.

Non-con challenge: Hmmmm, let's think about this one ... how bout Alabama? The Tide boast a pretty decent program, I hear. Penn State can make a major national statement by upsetting Nick Saban's crew, a young but talent-stocked team that enters the season as a bona fide national championship contender. This would be a huge win for Penn State and an even bigger victory for the Big Ten, which has struggled to beat the SEC's elite teams and took a reputation hit when Alabama eviscerated Michigan State in the 2011 Capital One Bowl.

Key stretch: Nebraska might have the Big Ten's toughest slate and Michigan State undoubtedly has the league's roughest road schedule in 2011. But no Big Ten team has a tougher closing stretch than Penn State. The Lions wrap up their home schedule against Nebraska in what could be coach Joe Paterno's final game at Beaver Stadium. Penn State then visits Ohio State and Wisconsin in consecutive weeks in games that could decide the Leaders division title.

Analysis: Penn State has to get off to a faster start than it did in 2010. If the Lions are 3-3 after Week 6 like they were in 2010, they could have a tough time getting bowl eligible. Alabama poses a major test and Iowa's recent dominance in the series is a concern, but Penn State has a chance to pile up wins in September and October. The backloaded schedule makes it imperative for Penn State to figure out its quarterback situation and other issues before the season kicks off. Paterno seems to like this team, and if he turns out to be right, Penn State will be playing its best football as the games get more challenging in November.

More B1G schedule analysis