Akron @ Penn State, Sept. 5: Sure, it's Akron, a team that went 5-7 in the MAC last season. But the season-opener will be critical for a Nittany Lion outfit breaking in three new starters on the offensive line, a revamped receiver corps and a brand new secondary. Add in the return to action of veteran defenders Sean Lee and Jerome Hayes, and there will be plenty worth watching in the opener. We should at least be able to get a feel for whether this team has what it takes to make a run at a second-straight Big Ten crown.
USC @ Ohio State, Sept. 12: Difficult though it may be, the Nittany Nation ought to be rooting like crazy for the Buckeyes in this one. The Big Ten has not exactly fared well in monster non-conference games of late, and this is an early-season shot at redemption. It is really THE marquee non-con game for the league. If Ohio State beats a team favored by many to win the Pac-10 and finish in the top 5, it will be a boost for the entire Big Ten. Penn State can then make the most of it by beating the Buckeyes later in the season. However, if OSU loses to the Trojans, the Big Ten will once again be painted as a conference not quite good enough to compete for the national title. That could come back to haunt the Lions should they get on an undefeated roll.
Iowa @ Penn State, Sept. 26: The Lions should be 3-0 heading into the Big Ten opener. Getting to 4-0 could be a challenge against an Iowa squad that has won four of the last five games played between the two teams in Happy Valley. One key in this one is how Penn State reacts to the devastating loss in Iowa City last year, a 24-23 pratfall that knocked it out of national title contention. Can the Lions use that as positive motivation? Or will they be so consumed with revenge that they lose focus? The Hawkeyes bring a power offense to town, but it will be without departed running back Shonn Greene. The defense must replace standout tackles Mitch King and Matt Kroul.
Penn State @ Illinois, Oct. 3: Penn State finally hits the road in Week 5, and does so against a team many believe will be the most improved in the Big Ten. Juice Williams and Arrelious Benn lead an offense that was potent even as the Illini bumbled their way to 5-7 last season. But there will be seven new starters on a defense that was generally lousy a year ago. Working in Penn State's favor is the fact that Illinois opens Big Ten play with a trip to Ohio State a week earlier. The Illini have been surprisingly effective in the Horseshoe, winning three of their last four games there. But win or lose, they figure to be a bit beaten up after the trip to Columbus. Illinois is 1-3 the week after playing Ohio State the past four years.
Penn State @ The State of Michigan, Oct. 24 and Nov. 21: OK, so throwing two teams into the mix here is a bit of a copout on our part. But you have to admit, the Nittany Lions have not exactly fared well on trips to the Great Lakes State of late. They have not beaten the Wolverines (their Oct. 24 foe) on the road since 1996, a string of five straight losses. And they are 4-8 all-time at Michigan State (their Nov. 21 foe), having dropped two of the last three. Michigan is still in all-out rebuilding mode under Rich Rodriguez, so that figures to be the easier of the two games. But the Spartans appear to (finally) be maturing into a top-tier Big Ten program under third year coach Mark Dantonio, so the Land Grant Trophy showdown in East Lansing (both teams' regular-season finale) could well have conference title implications for PSU and MSU.
Ohio State @ Penn State, Nov. 7: This is a showdown between the two teams most consider to be the best in the Big Ten. But don't get too giddy over the fact that the Nittany Lions get The Vest, Terrelle Pryor and company in the comfy confines of Beaver Stadium. The road team has won the last two games in this series. Meanwhile, the Big Ten has made it clear that none of its November games will be played at night. So while the kickoff time for this one has yet to be set (nor has television coverage), it won't be one of those 8 p.m. affairs in which the Lions have been so effective the past few seasons (outside of a 2007 home loss to OSU).