August has arrived, so it's football season at long last. To get you ready, we're analyzing every Big Ten team's complete 2013 schedule.
No. 4 in our series is Penn State
Nonconference opponents (with 2012 records)
Aug. 31: Syracuse (8-5)
Sept. 7: Eastern Michigan (2-10)
Sept. 14: UCF (10-4)
Sept. 21: Kent State (11-3)
Leaders Division games
Oct. 5: at Indiana
Oct. 26 at Ohio State
Nov. 2: Illinois
Nov. 16: Purdue
Nov. 30: at Wisconsin
Oct. 12: Michigan
Nov. 9: at Minnesota
Nov. 23: Nebraska
Gut-check game: Penn State is eligible to win a Leaders Division title despite its postseason ban. Like it or not, the road to that crown goes through Columbus, and it's quite literal in this case as the Nittany Lions visit the Horseshoe on Oct. 26. It's a night game, so the Buckeyes' fans will make it an inhospitable environment. Penn State won in its last trip to Ohio State, but that was the pre-Urban era.
Trap game: We're fully aware that Penn State is 16-0 all-time against Indiana. Still, that Big Ten opener in Bloomington looks dangerous. Not only does it come before the Lions play Michigan and Ohio State in back-to-back games, but the Hoosiers figure to be much improved this season. At the very least, they will test the Penn State defense, as Indiana put up 478 yards in last season's loss in State College.
Snoozer: Good old, reliable Eastern Michigan. When Big Ten teams need to schedule a breather, they call Ypsilanti. Penn State fans get to see their team 12 times this season, but this is one they can skip.
Noncon challenge: The three teams not named Eastern Michigan on Penn State's nonconference schedule combined for 29 wins last year, so all of them could be challenging. Watch out for UCF in particular. Unlike Syracuse and Kent State, the Knights did not go through an offseason coaching change.
Telltale stretch: The Michigan-Ohio State double whammy is a tough one, but I think the more telling stretch will be the final two games, against Nebraska on senior day and then the finale at Wisconsin. If the Lions can split the Michigan-Ohio State games, they'll remain in the division race. But how will they fare in the final two weeks, especially with a short roster entering the season? Any injuries or other attrition could take a major toll. And while I believe motivation won't be a problem, Penn State might not have much to play for beyond being a spoiler in those final two games.
Analysis: This schedule is challenging if not back-breaking. Syracuse, UCF and Kent State will all present significant hurdles, although Penn State will not have to play a true road game until October. Drawing Michigan and Nebraska as crossover opponents is a difficult assignment, but both games will be in Beaver Stadium. If you believe as I do that the Lions' three toughest Leaders games will be against Ohio State, Wisconsin and Indiana, then it's unfortunate for them that all three are on the road, while the division games that PSU would be favored in no matter the venue (Purdue and Illinois) are at home. Still, Penn State proved that once it got going last year, it could play with anybody in the league. It will be critical for the team to avoid another slow start this season, even while grooming a young starting quarterback.
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