Each year, I preview the season by starting with what appears--in my estimation--to be the easiest game on our schedule to win, and finishing up 12 games later with the game that I perceive as being the toughest to win.
This analysis is completely scientific. It's as dependable as photosynthesis and as right as an angle in the Pythagorean Theorem. And if you believe that, I also have some lovely swampland in Florida I'd like to sell you.
Most of my analysis is not based on numbers or fact, but on gut instincts. As such, I might be right, or it just might be gas. Sometimes I have appendicitis.
Normally I would start the countdown with one team, but let's face it, this year's schedule does not lend itself well to that. Most people with any modicum of football knowledge would know that Eastern Illinois is the easiest game on the schedule, and that game alone is probably not worth an entire post.
In fact, the schedule lends itself to thirds--one third that are almost definite wins (as definite as you can get in an era when "on any given Saturday" can bite you in the grass)--one third that should be wins, and one third that could go either way.
The first third shakes out like this . . .
12. Eastern Illinois
Is it coincidence that the four easiest games are also the out of conference schedule? I was sorely tempted to add Indiana to this mix, but you can rest easily knowing they will appear at #8, not because there's much chance we will lose to them, but because I couldn't really argue that they are any worse than the above teams either. And five teams does not constitute a third unless you round down or are really bad at math.
This FCS team hails from the Ohio Valley Conference which includes such teams as Murray State, Jacksonville State, and Austin Peay. I know of these only from the ticker that runs across the bottom of ESPN updating scores of games no one cares about.
The Panthers went 5-7 last year and 3-5 in their conference. Their offense ranked sixth--in their league. Their 2008 Sagarin ranking was 200. (Sagarin rankings are between the games played by 245 teams, so they were 45th from dead last.)
I have already spent more time on this game than is worth the bandwidth, so we shall move on.
While the Orangeman somehow found a way to beat the bowl-bound Irish, their 3-9 season (1-6 in the Big Least) was a dismal parting gift for Greg Robinson who jumped ship to be defensive coordinator for another 3 win program in the Big Ten.
The Orange will return their senior signal caller, but that's kind of like being on a boat and having the captain of the Titanic back.
The Lions pasted the Orange 55-13 on their turf. It won't be any prettier in Beaver Stadium.
Interestingly, the Orange open with Minnesota, Penn State and Northwestern. Paterno recently threw Syracuse's name out there in regard to expansion. Coincidence? This could be a crucial interview period and pretest for Syracuse IF the Big Ten ever expands and IF Syracuse would be given any consideration by someone other than Paterno.
The things that will make this game interesting are 1) it is the season opener --woo hoo!, and 2) it will feature one of the few competent QBs on our schedule versus our rebuilt and suspect secondary.
Chris Jacquemain passed for over 2,700 yards, 57.9% completions, 20 TDs and 14 INTs. His two favorite targets are both back. Virtually all his line returns except for All-MAC lineman Kemme, but they will be breaking in a new running back. This will be an excellent opening test for our defense.
But even with a decent passing game, the Zips were only 5-7 last year and 3-5 in the MAC. None of the preseason publications I have read have them challenging for the MAC title.
Mark it down: If we can control Akron's passing game, that bodes very well for the season. If we give up a lot of passing yardage in the first three quarters, it shifts the balance of confidence for future games negatively.
Temple will be chasing defending MAC Champion Buffalo and Bowling Green in their conference, let alone hoping to make a respectable showing in Beaver Stadium. Last year, I read a lot of positive things about the Owls--not enough to worry me about our game with them, but enough to wonder if Al Golden really could turn the program around. Some Tem,ple fans were even dreaming BOWL. Alas, when the dust settled, the Owls were 5-7 (4-4) and the dream of a bowl game dashed in the ashes of failure.
But it's all in how you look at it. Temple's five wins were the most in 18 seasons. Eighteen! Unfortunately, the Owls have some rebuilding to do on offense, beginning with replacing one time PSU recruit and starting QB Adam DiMichele. New QB + Beaver Stadium = disaster.
On the plus side, they return nine starters on defense--a defense that gave up 45 points to our HD offense last season on the road so to speak.
The Owls open with Villanova and have a bye before coming to University Park. They can't afford not to look ahead because they open MAC play against Buffalo the following week--yeah, a win against PSU would be a feather in their cap, but they need to concentrate on competing in their own conference before they set out to conquer the world.
Penn State ought to be 4-0 after these games. No excuses.