Is this the CFP year for Penn State?

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State has knocked on the doorstep of the College Football Playoff each of the last two seasons with both ending in a New Year's Six bowl that wasn't a part of the CFP semifinals.

Could this be the year they bust down the door and make it to the CFP?

With the way their schedule is set up, this might be the year they finally get over the hump and make a run at their first national championship since 1986.

The Nittany Lions will host seven games at Beaver Stadium, highly regarded as one of the toughest stadiums to play, this season. Of those seven, five are against conference foes Ohio State, Michigan State, Iowa, Wisconsin and Maryland. The other two are Appalachian State and Kent State.

Playing perennial Big Ten East powers in Ohio State and Michigan State at home and rather early in the season bodes well for Penn State as they attempt to make their way up the national rankings. A loss to one of the two would not be nearly as catastrophic as it could be later in the season.

Lest we forget, the Nittany Lions have not lost at home since November of 2015, a 28-16 loss against Michigan, and quarterback Trace McSorley is a perfect 14-0 at home as the starter.

As for the road games, Week 2 provides a difficult road test against in-state rival Pitt, who won their previous meeting at Heinz Field, 42-39, in 2016. The Nittany Lions head to Illinois for a Friday night game in Week 4 before traveling to Indiana in Week 8.

Penn State then finishes the season with road games against Michigan and Rutgers in Week 10 and Week 12, respectively. The game at the Big House against the Wolverines could go a long way in dictating whether the Nittany Lions make it back to the Big Ten Championship game and rise in the CFP rankings or will be relegated to only a bowl game.

With a tough non-conference game on the road and a tough conference game on the road, Penn State's schedule gives them a prime opportunity to make it to the CFP should they handle business during the season.

Currently at No. 10 in the AP Preseason Poll, Penn State's schedule lists them as playing four current top-15 teams this fall, No. 4 Wisconsin, No. 5 Ohio State, No. 11 Michigan State and No. 14 Michigan. Those rankings are sure to change, and the Nittany Lions very well could see more ranked opponents appear later in the season.

Let's look at how the schedule could play out as the season unfolds.


Appalachian State comes to Happy Valley for a 3:30 p.m. kickoff Saturday, and really, a competitive game would be a win for them. Penn State will be very vanilla in their offensive play calling and schemes on defense, not wanting to give up a lot of intel prior to the bulk of their conference schedule.

The Mountaineers do have some speed on their roster in running back Jalin Moore, but alas, the depth of the Nittany Lions will be too much to handle for a program who had one of the biggest upsets of all time against Michigan in 2007.



The last time the Nittany Lions entered Heinz Field with a new offensive coordinator, the result was a 42-39 defeat at the hands of the Panthers. Since that game, Penn State has reached the Big Ten championship, a Rose Bowl, and the Fiesta Bowl while Pitt reached the Pinstripe Bowl in 2016 and just missed a bowl in 2017.

At Beaver Stadium last year, the Nittany Lions dismantled the Panthers, 33-14. This year, the crowd at Heinz Field will be raucous, much like it was in 2016, but I expect Penn State to not make nearly the amount of mistakes it did in their first meeting.



MACtion returns to Beaver Stadium when Kent State comes to town. Penn State and the Golden Flashes have squared off five times with the Nittany Lions being victorious in all of them. I expect much to be the same this season. Kent State does not match up favorably against Penn State at any position. This will be one of the last early-season games where freshmen who are on the cusp of a redshirt will see time.



Cue Admiral Ackbar from the Star Wars movies: This game could be a trap. This is a Friday night, Central Time Zone game against a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team with a big game the next week for the Nittany Lions. Could this be an upset in the making? Anything is possible, but it's not likely.

I would not be surprised if Penn State came off the bus sluggish against the Fighting Illini, but I do expect the Nittany Lions will be victorious at the end of the day.



When Ohio State last visited Happy Valley, they walked away with a 24-21 loss after a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown. At that time, it was a statement win for head coach James Franklin and catapulted the Nittany Lions to a Big Ten Championship in 2016.

Last season, Penn State fell one point short of a second straight win over the Buckeyes, falling 39-38.

This year, much turmoil has surrounded the Ohio State program as head coach Urban Meyer will be suspended the first three games of the season for his handling of off-the-field issues involving former receivers coach Zach Smith.

The Buckeyes will have a new quarterback, and a hostile environment such as Beaver Stadium usually doesn't go well for opposing quarterbacks, regardless of experience. Ohio State is very much a wild card this year, but this game should be one for the ages with Penn State getting the edge.



Having a bye after Ohio State will allow Penn State to recover and reset for the remainder of the season. A win against the Buckeyes will give the Nittany Lions momentum going into a revenge game against Michigan State, who won 24-21 in 2017.

Last season was one of the school's quirkiest games with a three-hour weather delay in the middle of the game, and Penn State just wasn't able to overcome some of their own mistakes.

The Nittany Lions whooped the Spartans, 45-12, in 2016, but I don't expect this to be a rout of any kind. I fully expect a close game for the first three quarters and Penn State pulling away late.



Penn State drubbed Indiana, 45-14, at home last season and will take the game on the road this year against the Hoosiers. The Nittany Lions took down Indiana, 45-31, on their last trip to Bloomington, and I'd expect much of the same this year.



It was a walk-off touchdown that sealed the deal against Iowa at Kinnick Stadium last season, and it ultimately dictated the way the season played out for the Nittany Lions. Had that win not happened, the Fiesta Bowl doesn't happen, and the season would've played out much differently.

The Hawkeyes always have Kinnick Stadium magic at their disposal, but with this year's contest being held at Beaver Stadium, I'd venture to guess it won't be a walk-off that seals the deal for Penn State.



The last time Penn State played at the Big House, two seasons ago the Nittany Lions got throttled, 49-10. Since then, Penn State has yet to lose a game by more than a field goal.

This season's edition of the Wolverines is head coach Jim Harbaugh's most intriguing team, as they have former Ole Miss quarterback Shea Patterson leading the way for the Michigan offense. Will he lead the Wolverines to victory over the Nittany Lions? It's possible, especially in front of what could be a prime-time crowd at Michigan Stadium.



Penn State and Wisconsin last faced off in the 2016 Big Ten Championship in what was one of the most thrilling games of the 2016 season. That come-from-behind victory helped solidify the Nittany Lions among college football's top programs once again.

The Badgers return to Beaver Stadium for the first time since 2012, a 24-21 victory for Penn State. Wisconsin most likely will represent the Big Ten West in the Big Ten Championship once again this year, with the West not being nearly as rough as the East.

This also could be a trap game should the Nittany Lions handle business against Michigan, knowing they have only Rutgers and Maryland in their road for a Big Ten East division title.



Penn State has given up a total of nine points to Rutgers over the course of the last three seasons. The Scarlet Knights are on the rise under head coach Chris Ash, but they do not have the horses to keep up with the Nittany Lions just yet.



The Maryland program is in severe disarray, and I'd imagine by this point in the season, they'll be happy with the season being over. Led by interim head coach Matt Canada, the former Pitt offensive coordinator, the Terrapins will have their handful with the Nittany Lions, who will be honoring their seniors prior to the game.

It was a 66-3 victory for Penn State last season, and I'd expect more of the same this year unless Maryland can pull off a storybook season and overcome daunting odds to be competitive in the Big Ten East.


PRUGAR'S PREDICTION: 11-1 overall (8-1 Big Ten) with an appearance in the Big Ten Championship game against Wisconsin.

To continue reading, log into your account: