Penn State will be one of the nation’s most hyped teams entering 2017. The Nittany Lions won the B1G last season. They are near the top of the country with 16 returning starters. That includes quarterback Trace McSorely. Our “way too early” rankings had Penn State No. 12. A few more months of discussion season may get the Nittany Lions into many preseason Top 10s.
Whether Penn State lives up to this hype may depend on one crucial stretch of the season after their mid-October bye week.
Oct 21: Michigan
Oct 28: at Ohio State
Nov. 4: at Michigan State
Franklin is 0-3 against Michigan. Jim Harbaugh beat Penn State by double-digits in Happy Valley and 2015. As every Michigan fan will gladly point out, the Nittany Lions lost by 39 in Ann Arbor last year. That game saw the ultimate indignity: Penn State kicking a field goal down 28 in the second half to ensure they scored points. The Wolverines could have won by more.
Michigan is dead last in the nation with just five returning starters. Though multiple future NFL players on the defensive line were not “starters” last year. They will still be in preseason Top 10s. That should still be a tough game.
One week later, Penn State has to play Ohio State in the horseshoe. The Nittany Lions sprung the upset last year on a blocked field goal. So, the Buckeyes will be out for revenge. Last year, Ohio State fielded a young, inexperienced, but very talented team. This year, Ohio State has an older, experienced, and still very talented team with 15 starters coming back.
Urban Meyer’s average margin of victory over Penn State in Columbus? 38.5 points.
After Michigan and Ohio State, Penn State faces a tricky letdown game on the road in East Lansing. It would be the second-straight road trip. The Nittany Lions may be a little beat up by that point. Michigan State has a long way to go to get back to where they were as a program a couple seasons ago. Though, few would doubt Mark Dantonio’s ability to do that. Franklin lost by 36 on his first trip to East Lansing.
If Penn State is going to repeat in the Big Ten, they probably need to come through that stretch clean. Will it be the stretch that defines Penn State’s season? Not necessarily.
The Nittany Lions play Pittsburgh non-conference. Pitt beat both Penn State and Clemson last season. They also have road trips to Iowa and to Northwestern on the slate. If Penn State wins those games, that would be their two best conference road wins under Franklin. The Nittany Lions beat Purdue, Indiana, and Rutgers on the road in 2016 and, of course, lost to Michigan by 39.