Every team in the Big Ten faces a crucial stretch in 2016. It might make the difference in a program’s bid to escape the division basement, to reach bowl eligibility or contend for the College Football Playoff. But for all 14 teams, a make-or-break period exists.
So to help you map your fall, this week we’re identifying and analyzing those pivotal points around the conference.
Up next is Penn State.
Toughest stretch: Weeks 2 through 4 (at Pittsburgh, Temple, at Michigan)
Why?: The Nittany Lions face Ohio State and Iowa during three weeks in October and November, but a trip in between to Purdue disqualified that stretch.
These September games also feature the element of a new starting quarterback. If it’s Trace McSorley, he got experience last season in the TaxSlayer Bowl against Georgia and looked good in spring practice.
Things get hairy in a hurry, though, after an opening game against Kent State. Pitt and Penn State have played 92 games -- but none since 2000. The series gets a four-year renewal, and football fans in Pennsylvania have counted the days since it was announced in 2011. The Panthers fared well a year ago in coach Pat Narduzzi’s debut, but this game is about so much more than two teams that combined for 15 wins last season.
And to follow? Well, it’s an entirely different kind of Pennsylvania rivalry. Penn State has not shied away from playing the Owls of the American Athletic Conference. In fact, since the Nittany Lions last faced Pitt, they’ve met Temple 11 times. It all worked nicely for Penn State until last season, when the coach Matt Rhule’s team beat PSU 27-10 in Philadelphia en route to a 10-win season. The victory marked Temple’s first in the series since 1941, snapping a 38-game streak.
So the Week 3 matchup includes some added intrigue.
A Sept. 24 visit to Michigan needs no contextual explanation. The Wolverines will be favored by many to win the Big Ten and ought to roll through nonconference play to arrive at this league opener for both teams with a head of steam and mounting hype.
Penn State’s condition at the outset of the Big Ten season depends on its performance in a pair of emotional games against its longtime rivals.