Penn State is likely going to begin the season ranked among the top 10 teams in the nation, and expectations are going to be higher than they’ve been in about a decade.
It’s going to be different than 2016, when the Nittany Lions stunned Ohio State at midseason and spent the rest of the campaign proving it belonged among the nation’s best. Now, Penn State will be among the hunted.
Save for a two-week stretch in the middle of the season when Michigan comes to Happy Valley and Penn State goes to Columbus to face Ohio State, the Nittany Lions should be pretty significant favorites in the other 10 games. They’ll likely be favored against the Wolverines as well, but possibly not by more than a few points.
So, let’s set aside Michigan and Ohio State, and assume that Penn State will be favored by at least a touchdown in each of the other 10 contests. Which of those teams is the one that has the best chance to give the Nittany Lions problems, and possibly pull off a surprising upset?
Coach James Franklin would probably reply to a question about that with 140 characters worth of “Akron, Akron, Akron …” but that’s sort of become his thing.
Penn State has the weekend off before the showdowns with Michigan and Ohio State. That’s certainly going to be helpful.
The game before the bye week is often a tricky one for college coaches. Players will sometimes lose peak sharpness because a little time off is coming.
That’s part of why the trip to Evanston, Ill., to play Northwestern on Oct. 7 could be a tricky one for the Nittany Lions. Penn State should be 5-0 at that point and it will be a challenge for the players to not be thinking ahead to the White Out against Michigan and a titanic clash with Ohio State.
There’s also the matter of the talent and coaching the Wildcats have. Iowa is the first road trip, but there is a lot of uncertainty for the Hawkeyes and Penn State drilled them last season. Northwestern could be the team that challenges Wisconsin for Big Ten West supremacy.
Clayton Thorson and Justin Jackson could challenge Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley as the best quarterback-running back tandem in the conference next season. Thorson threw for 3,182 yards and 22 touchdowns in his second season as a starter in 2016. Jackson has nearly 3,000 rushing yards in two seasons.
Top wideout Austin Carr is gone, but he only had 16 catches the year before his breakout campaign. The Wildcats have more coming back in 2017 than they did last season.
Also, Pat Fitzgerald is a really good coach. Northwestern has won 17 games the past two seasons and rallied from a 1-3 start last year to win seven. The Wildcats lost by one point to New Year’s Six darling Western Michigan and by four at Ohio State.
Given the talent returning, the coaching staff and where the game is on the schedule, Northwestern is the team most likely to have Penn State on upset alert in 2017.