Kent St Penn St Football

Penn State head coach James Franklin, left, holds the team back during introductions before taking the field against Kent State in an NCAA college football game in State College, Pa., Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018. (AP Photo/Chris Knight)

Penn State recently debuted at No. 16 in Sports Illustrated’s preseason poll. Earlier this month, the Nittany Lions landed at No. 14 in the USA Today Coaches Poll.

With the Associated Press’ first poll of the season set to be released on Aug. 19, now is be a good time to give my game-by-game breakdown of Penn State’s 2019 schedule.

Penn State draws eight bowl teams from last year. The Nittany Lions have road games at Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State that they’ll have to overcome to make it back to the Big Ten championship game for the first time in three seasons.

Here’s a look at this year’s schedule, with full disclosure that I’ve picked Penn State to go 9-3:

Aug 31 vs. Idaho: The Vandals returned to FCS in 2018 and won just four games. Idaho travels to Beaver Stadium for the series’ first meeting. After needing overtime to beat Appalachian State in last year’s opener, Penn State should keep its FCS streak intact with a victory.

Sept. 7 vs Buffalo: Buffalo makes its first trip to Beaver Stadium since 2015. Penn State grabbed a 13-point win that year and owns a 2-1 series advantage. Buffalo won a program-best 10 games last season and finished second in the Mid-American Conference, but it returns just seven starters from that squad. The Nittany Lions move to 2-0.

Sept. 14 vs. Pittsburgh: The Nittany Lions and Panthers are set to meet for the series’ 100th meeting. It’s also the last scheduled game between the squads, which makes this contest required viewing. Pitt might have only won seven games last year, but it was good enough to win the ACC Coastal crown. Penn State’s outscored Pitt 84-20 in their last two meetings. Pitt will prove to be a formidable test, but the Nittany Lions should escape with a close win.

Sept. 27 at Maryland: Penn State heads to Maryland off an idle week for its Friday night contest against the Terps. The game will be both teams’ Big Ten openers, and Maryland’s Mike Locksley’s first league contest as a head coach. Penn State has controlled the series, outscoring Maryland 104-6 in their last two meetings. Locksley’s Big Ten debut and a rowdy Friday night atmosphere will offer early challenges, but Penn State should win its fourth consecutive against the Terps.

Oct. 5 vs. Purdue: Purdue boasts on the league’s most dynamic playmakers in wide receiver Rondale Moore. Jeff Brohm picked up a signature win in just first season as head coach when his team defeated No. 2 Ohio State in West Lafayette last year. Purdue’s defense was porous in 2018 (113 in FBS in total defense), due to youth and inexperience. Nine players on that side of the ball return. Moore and seasoned defense still shouldn’t pose a threat for the Nittany Lions. 

Oct. 12 at Iowa: Kinnick Stadium is routinely pegged as one of the Big Ten’s most daunting environments. Penn State used a walk-off touchdown to earn a 2-point win in 2017, its last trip to Iowa and James Franklin’s first as Penn State’s head coach. The Nittany Lions have won two straight in Iowa, but the Hawkeyes boast perhaps the conference’s best defensive end in A.J. Epenesa (10.5 sacks in 2018) and one of its most seasoned quarterbacks in Nate Stanley. Iowa wins a close one here.

Oct. 19 vs. Michigan: The Jim Harbaugh-led Wolverines visit Beaver Stadium for Penn State’s annual whiteout game that will carry division implications. Michigan won 10 games last year but lost a trio of defenders – Devin Bush, Rahsan Gary and Chase Winovich – that helped the unit finish the season as the league’s best in total defense. Seven starters return on offense, including senior quarterback Shea Patterson. The Nittany Lions will undoubtedly be cognizant of last year’s 35-point loss. Penn State is 1-4 in its last five meetings with Michigan, its lone win occurring at home in 2017. Michigan should win in State College.

Oct. 26 at Michigan State: This one rounds out Penn State’s Michigan tour. Michigan State beat Penn State by four points at Beaver Stadium last season. Close games between the Spartans and Nittany Lions have been the trend in the last two years as Michigan State beat Penn State 27-24 in East Lansing in 2017. Michigan State has gone 5-1 against the Nittany Lions since 2010. Kenny Willekes leads a talented Spartan defense that returns eight starters. Penn State earns a close road win to follow the series’ recent trend. 

Nov. 9 at Minnesota: The Gophers will again be one of the Big Ten’s youngest teams, but head coach P.J. Fleck certainly has them on the upward trajectory. Minnesota should offer a respite for the Nittany Lions following back-to-back games against the Wolverines and the Spartans and an idle week, but both teams have split their last two contests, which have been decided by 17 points. Penn State’s talent and depth should ensure a victory.

Nov. 16 vs. Indiana: The Hoosiers have beaten the Nittany Lions just one time in 22 meetings. Penn State defeated Indiana 33-28 in 2018 to extend its win streak over the Hoosiers to five. Indiana outgained Penn State 554-417 in total offense last year in Bloomington and earned 12 more first downs. The Nittany Lions will be more formidable this go-round at Beaver Stadium.

Nov. 23 at Ohio State: The last three games between these teams have been decided by just five points, including one-point wins by Ohio State in 2017 and 2018. Gone are Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer and first-round NFL Draft pick Dwayne Haskins, but first-year head coach Ryan Day (former Buckeyes offensive coordinator) inherits a talented roster and has a familiarity of the roster. Ohio State should take Penn State in another close game.

Nov. 30 vs. Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights visit Beaver Stadium for Penn State’s regular-season finale. Rutgers head coach Chris Ash enters this season on the hot seat after going 7-29 and 3-24 in league play. Rutgers hasn’t beaten Penn State since 1988, and barring an unforeseen turnaround, the Nittany Lions should cap their regular season with a win.

Elton Hayes covers Penn State sports for CNHI. Email him at ehayes@cnhi.com. Follow him on Twitter @EHDC12.

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