Toughest non-conference game: The opener on Sept. 1 vs. Ohio and coach Frank Solich is dangerous. In fact, danger abounds everywhere, as all four foes—Virginia, Temple and Navy are the others–combined for 32 victories in 2011. But pay special attention when the Bobcats visit. They have gone an aggregate 27-14 the past three seasons (19-5 in the MAC) and are coming off a MAC East title, bowl win and three bowl trips in a row.
Toughest Big Ten game: Home games vs. Ohio State (Oct. 27) and Wisconsin (Nov. 24) will be rugged. But the trip to Nebraska on Nov. 10 may take the cake. This could be Bo Pelini’s best Cornhusker squad. Nebraska won last year’s meeting, 17-14. But the game was more memorable for the fact it was the first without Joe Paterno on the sideline, as the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse story was unfolding before the nation’s eyes. Football wasn’t on the mind of many on that Saturday.
Who they don’t play: Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota. This works out very well for first-year coach Bill O’Brien, who doesn’t have to play what looks like the two best teams in the Legends Division in the Wolverines and Spartans.
Easiest game: Since there are no real gimmes in the non-conference—remember, the Nittany Lions barely beat Temple last year (14-10), Virginia is on the come, Ohio is strong and Navy is Navy—Indiana’s visit on Nov. 17 looks like the closest thing to a sure thing. And, if history matters, the Nittany Lions should roll, as they are 15-0 all-time vs. the Hoosiers. Start the fight song …
Rugged stretch: From Oct. 20-Nov. 10, Penn State has four tough games, with three coming on the road. The skein starts with a trip to Iowa followed by a visit from Ohio State and ends with junkets to Purdue and Nebraska. If the Nittany Lions emerge from this stretch 2-2, they will be fortunate.
Best chance to be upset: Honestly—aside from the Indiana game—Penn State probably could lose to any team on its schedule. But keep an eye on the Big Ten opener Sept. 29 at Illinois. What will the Nittany Lions look like after four challenging non-conference games? Like Penn State, the Fighting Illini will be led by a new coach (Tim Beckman) who will be looking to make an impression. The Nittany Lions also need to be careful when they play at Purdue on Nov. 3 vs. what could be Danny Hope’s best team. Both of these games will go a long way in determining if Penn State is an upper-division Leaders team capable of earning a decent bowl bid.
Best chance to pull an upset: Could Penn State knock off Ohio State when the Buckeyes visit Happy Valley on Oct. 27? The Nittany Lions’ offense will need to have found its groove by now, playing vs. a tough Buckeye defense. No way Penn State will beat Ohio State running Silas Redd left, Silas Redd right, Silas Redd up the middle. A passing game will be needed. Will the Nittany Lions have one by now?
Must win: It’s vital for Penn State to win a Homecoming clash vs. Northwestern on Oct. 6. The Wildcats are a work-in-progress on defense and also will be working in a new quarterback. This is a team the Nittany Lions need to beat before embarking on the toughest stretch of the season. Since the Wildcats won in State College, Pa., in 2004, Penn State has won the last five meetings.
Bye week: Oct. 13. This is perfect, coming at the halfway mark, as Penn State will have played six games with six to go. What will the Nittany Lions’ record look like at the turn? Will Penn State be 6-0? 5-1? If it has any aspirations of winning the Leaders Division, the Nittany Lions can’t be any worse than 4-2 with the heaviest lifting of the season left with games at Iowa; vs. Ohio State; at Purdue; at Nebraska; vs. Indiana; vs. Wisconsin.
Sept. 1 Ohio*
Sept. 8 at Virginia#
Sept. 15 Navy*
Sept. 22 Temple*
Sept. 29 at Illinois#
Oct. 6 Northwestern*
Oct. 20 at Iowa#
Oct. 27 Ohio State
Nov. 3 at Purdue#
Nov. 10 at Nebraska
Nov. 17 Indiana*
Nov. 24 Wisconsin
BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is on Twitter and Facebook, all of his work is at btn.com/tomdienhart, and you can subscribe to it all via his RSS feed. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below.