Nonconference primer: Penn State

Tomorrow is July 4, and the next major holiday will be Labor Day, which means college football is right around the corner. To get you geared up, we're taking a closer look at the list of nonconference opponents on each Big Ten team's slate this fall.

Let's see what Penn State must navigate through in September.

Syracuse, Aug. 31 (at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.)

Coach: Scott Shafer (first season)

2012 record: 8-5, 5-2 Big East

Offensive headliner: Running back Jerome Smith had 1,171 yards on 227 carries last year, though he scored just three touchdowns. He ran for 152 yards against West Virginia in the Pinstripe Bowl win.

Defensive headliner: Weakside linebacker Dyshawn Davis had 14 tackles for loss and 69 total stops a year ago. He also added an interception and two fumble recoveries.

The skinny: This is a big transition year for the Orange, who saw coach Doug Marrone bolt for the NFL's Buffalo Bills in the offseason and now head into their first year of ACC play. Shafer, the one-time Michigan defensive coordinator, takes over a team that lost 10 starters, including star quarterback Ryan Nassib. The quarterback race remains open, while Syracuse expects to lean heavily on its running game this season.

Eastern Michigan, Sept. 7

Coach: Ron English (10-38, fifth season)

2012 record: 2-10, 1-7 MAC

Offensive headliner: Running back Bronson Hill had only 10 rushing yards in his team's first four games but still managed to finish with 905 for the season. He did major damage against Toledo (283 rushing yards, four touchdowns on 28 carries) and Army (185 on 26 carries).

Defensive headliner: Senior defensive back Donald Coleman is the leading returning tackler with 88 stops a year ago. But there are no real headliners on a team that had the MAC's worst defense in 2012.

The skinny: The Eagles continue to be a reliable staple on Big Ten schedules thanks to their compliance. Apart from a surprising 6-6 record in 2011, English -- the former Michigan defensive coordinator -- is just 4-32. Former Ball State coach Stan Parrish has come over to run the offense, but if Eastern Michigan can't fix a defense that allowed nearly 38 points per game in 2012, it will have another long season.

UCF, Sept. 14

Coach: George O'Leary (60-55, 10th year)

2012 record: 10-4, 7-1 Conference USA

Offensive headliner: Quarterback Blake Bortles threw for 3,059 yards and 25 touchdowns with only seven interceptions last year. The junior was also the MVP of the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl.

Defensive headliner: Safety Clayton Geathers had 117 tackles, five pass breakups and two forced fumbles last season.

The skinny: The Knights move into the American Athletic Conference fresh off a 10-win season that included a bowl victory. But they return just 11 starters, including several important contributors on defense. Bortles leads an offense that put up some big numbers in C-USA action but fizzled in losses against Ohio State and Missouri.

Kent State, Sept. 21

Coach: Paul Haynes (first year)

2012 record: 11-3, 8-0 MAC

Offensive headliner: Dri Archer was an all-American last year as he set a school record with 23 touchdowns, averaging nine yards per carry and 36.9 yards on kick returns. The 5-foot-8 speedster is expected to add punt returns to his arsenal this year.

Defensive headliner: Senior defensive lineman Roosevelt Nix has 20.5 career sacks and was the MAC defensive player of the year as a freshman. He'll likely graduate as the most decorated defensive player in school history.

The skinny: The Golden Flashes came practically out of nowhere to almost make a BCS game last year, losing to eventual Orange Bowl participant Northern Illinois in double overtime of the MAC title game. Darrell Hazell parlayed that success into the Purdue job. Enter Kent State alum Haynes, who spent last year as Arkansas' defensive coordinator and who has been an assistant at Ohio State and Michigan State. The team still has some star power in Archer, Nix and running back Trayion Durham (1,316 yards in '12). The Flashes will be out to prove they're not a one-year -- or one-coach --- wonder.


This schedule might have looked tougher last year, when Kent State was a Top 25 squad, UCF won 10 games and Syracuse had an explosive offense led by Nassib. Now, two of those three teams are going through coaching changes, while the Orange and UCF also are dealing with a lot of roster turnover. Still, Kent State and UCF have the chance to pull off an Ohio-like surprise at Beaver Stadium after experiencing so much success last year, and Syracuse figures to remain competitive. The good news for Penn State is the Nittany Lions don't play a true road game, and they should be much better prepared early in the season now that they've had a year under Bill O'Brien and without any of last summer's major distractions. O'Brien will need his new starting quarterback -- whether that's Tyler Ferguson or Christian Hackenberg -- to be sharp right out of the gate, but Penn State should be favored in all four nonconference games.

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