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Penn State football: Breaking down the Nittany Lions’ 2018 schedule

After an offseason filled with waiting, the Penn State football season is almost here.

The opener is slated for a 3:30 p.m. kickoff Sept. 1 against Appalachian State. So, with the season right around the corner, we decided to look at the entire Nittany Lions’ schedule.

Here’s an overview of all of Penn State’s games, along with what you should know about each opponent:

Game 1: vs. Appalachian State (3:30 p.m. Sept. 1)

2017 record: 9-4

Player to watch: RB Jalin Moore

Synopsis: Appalachian State may be the favorite in the Sun Belt, but the Nittany Lions are still better than three-touchdown favorites. The Mountaineers’ main storyline here is how they’ll have to overcome the graduation of four-year starting QB Taylor Lamb, who threw 90 career TD passes. His replacement appears to be sophomore Zac Thomas, a dual threat who will test the discipline of Penn State’s linebackers. On the other end of the field, Appalachian State has a number of holes along the front-seven, but the solid secondary returns every starter.

Game 2: at Pitt (8 p.m. Sept. 8)

2017 record: 5-7

Player to watch: RB Darrin Hall

Synopsis: According to Bill Connelly’s S&P+ ratings, the Panthers are underdogs in seven of their 11 games against FBS opponents — and in the games they’re favored in, they own an average 58.8 percent win probability. Not too convincing. Hall, who ran for 486 yards in a three-game span late in 2017, could emerge from a crowded running back room. A lot will also depend on quarterback Kenny Pickett, Pitt’s third option under center last year who eventually took hold of the starting job and completed 62.1 percent of his passes in a season-finale upset of undefeated Miami. Despite losing Avonte Maddox and Jordan Whitehead to the NFL, Pitt’s pass defense should be improved, too.

Game 3: vs. Kent State (noon Sept. 15)

2017 record: 2-10

Player to watch: P Derek Adams

Synopsis: Outside of Adams, who last season averaged 0.4 yards more per punt than Blake Gillikin, and an All-MAC linebacker in Jim Jones, there’s not much nice to say about the Golden Flashes. This is one of the worst teams in all of college football, and this should be the most lopsided game on Penn State’s schedule. If anything, pay attention to the QB competition here: Transfer Woody Barrett was once a candidate to start at Auburn, so he has potential.

Game 4: at Illinois (9 p.m. Sept. 21)

2017 record: 2-10

Player to watch: WR Mike Dudek

Synopsis: Dudek might seem like a blast from the past, because he is one. The wideout had 11 catches against Penn State in 2014, a part of his freshman All-American campaign. But the wideout missed 2015 and 2016 — and five games in 2017 — due to injury. If he can stay on the field, he’ll be a factor. And maybe the only factor. Quarterback Cam Thomas’ running ability is intriguing with new offensive coordinator Rod Smith, who worked with Heisman Trophy contender Khalil Tate last year at Arizona. Still, Illinois ranked 126th out of 129 FBS teams in total offense in 2017. There might be improvement but not enough to make them bowl eligible, let alone a contender to upset the Nittany Lions.

Game 5: vs. Ohio State (Sept. 29)

2017 record: 12-2

Player to watch: QB Dwayne Haskins

Synopsis: Call their coach dishonest. Call the administration tone deaf or unsympathetic. But … wait, where were we going with this again? Anyway, Urban Meyer will be back on the sideline for this game — and, believe it or not, it may be Ohio State’s most talented yet, according to the “team talent composite” by SB Nation. Outside of Alabama, no one else reloads better than the Buckeyes. Their projected S&P+ ranking is still No. 1, and they’ll still likely enter this game as the slight favorite.

Game 6: vs. No. 11 Michigan State (Oct. 13)

2017 record: 10-3

Player to watch: QB Brian Lewerke

Synopsis: In Penn State’s title hope-crushing 27-24 loss to the Spartans last season, Michigan State wideouts Felton Davis III, Darrell Stewart Jr. and Cody White combined for 22 catches, 297 yards and two touchdowns. All three of them return in 2018, as do Lewerke, running back LJ Scott and 16 other starters. After rebounding from a 3-9 campaign in 2016, the Spartans are legitimate College Football Playoff contenders this go-around with 30/1 odds to win the national title — on par with Texas, Miami and Notre Dame. With Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan held in higher regard by Las Vegas oddsmakers, it might be easy to sleep on Sparty. Don’t.

Game 7: at Indiana (Oct. 20)

2017 record: 5-7

Player to watch: S Jonathan Crawford

Synopsis: Indiana’s identity really flipped last season, with the defense outshining the offense. Expect the O to improve this season, while the defense takes a few steps back. Indiana lost a number of solid contributors along its front-seven, including linebackers Tegray Scales and Chris Covington. But, on offense, it returns its entire line — and adds two-year Miami (Fla.) starter Nick Linder. QB Peyton Ramsey was also just recently named the starter over Arizona transfer Brandon Dawkins, and he looked solid down the stretch last season.

Game 8: vs. Iowa (Oct. 27)

2017 record: 8-5

Player to watch: TE Noah Fant

Synopsis: Fant — an Associated Press preseason first-team All-American — and quarterback Nate Stanley, along with two returning offensive tackles, are the foundation for a quietly solid offense. Defensively, losing Josey Jewell and his 433 career tackles hurt. Westgate Sports Book set Iowa’s 2018 win total over/under at 7.5 wins, and, at least historically, that’s fair. In Kirk Ferentz’s 19 seasons at the helm, the Hawkeyes have eight seasons of seven or eight wins. And Big Ten observers should expect the same from Iowa in 2018. Ferentz’s Hawkeyes can still pull off an upset; look no further than Iowa’s 55-24 throttling of No. 6 Ohio State last year and one-point takedown of No. 2 Michigan in 2016.

Game 9: at No. 14 Michigan (Nov. 3)

2017 record: 8-5

Player to watch: DL Rashan Gary

Synopsis: Nine of 11 starters return on defense. The Detroit Free Press believes it could be DC Don Brown’s best-ever group. It might be the best in the country. The real question on this team is the same as last season — the quarterback. Luckily for the Wolverines, and un-luckily for the rest of the Big Ten, they added Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson into the mix. The former blue-chipper could turn this offense around in a hurry and, if he does, this team has College Football Playoff potential.

Game 10: vs. No. 4 Wisconsin (Sept. 10)

2017 record: 13-1

Player to watch: OL David Edwards

Synopsis: As far as players to watch go, the Badgers had plenty to choose from; Wisconsin’s five representatives on the Associated Press preseason All-America list is tied with Alabama for most in the country. Three were offensive linemen: Edwards and guards Beau Benzschawel and Michael Dieter. Surprise, surprise, the Badgers will go as far as Heisman contender Jonathan Taylor and the offensive line takes them. And it could be far. Six of seven Sports Illustrated writers picked Wisconsin to reach the College Football Playoff. And after back-to-back Big Ten title game appearances, that’s where the expectations are for Paul Chryst’s crew.

Game 11: at Rutgers (Nov. 17)

2017 record: 4-8

Player to watch: CB Blessuan Austin

Synopsis: This offense is dreadful, and Penn State should put it on shutout alert. Against FBS teams last season, it surpassed 17 points just twice — against Illinois and Maryland. And it won’t be much better this season; the Scarlet Knights’ top four receivers had 19 combined catches last year. On defense, however, the secondary could be one of the Big Ten’s best. Trace McSorley will be tested, and Miles Sanders should be counted on in a big way.

Game 12: at Maryland (Nov. 24)

2017 record: 4-8

Player to watch: QB Tyrrell Pigrome

Synopsis: Pigrome might not even start under center; it could be Kasim Hill. Pigrome, who started last season’s opener against Texas, went 9 of 12 for 175 yards and two touchdown passes and added a rushing score before suffering a season-ending injury in the second half. Hill came in, finished off a surprising win, completed 81 percent of his passes the following week in a blowout of Towson and incurred a season-ending injury of his own against UCF. Whoever wins the quarterback battle has pressure to carry Maryland’s offense after the Terrapins sputtered with Max Bortenschlager running the show in 2017. Even with 2018 NFL first-round wideout D.J. Moore, Maryland ranked 116th in passing offense last season.

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