12. Eastern Illinois
5. Michigan State
4. Ohio State
I know exactly what you are thinking--Northwestern? More difficult than Ohio State? Have I lost all credibility here? (That assumes of course there was any credibility to lose in the first place.)
You might be further surprised to know that I almost ranked Iowa here, putting Northwestern in the top 2 difficult games.
But the Wildcats just don't have the talent nor the defense that Iowa (or Ohio State) brings to the field. But Northwestern benefits from some intangibles that can't be overlooked in the game of football.
First and foremost, this game is on the road. Here is our record to date in Evanston:
1993: W 43-21
1995: L 10-21
1997: W 30-27 (PSU ranked #2)
2001: W 38-35 (ties Bear Bryant)
2003: L 7-17
2005: W 34-29 (converting 4th and 15 and Williams epic TD)
With the exception of 1993, Penn State has either won by 5 points or less, or flat out lost. And a couple of those wins were close enough to cause palpitations and were a play away from being disasters. My conclusion based on the available evidence: we do not dominate on the road at Northwestern.
Northwestern may not be competing for the Big Ten Championship, but they aren't your grandfather's Northwestern team either. Pat Fitzgerald is doing a good job out there, and Northwestern took Missouri into OT before losing the Alamo Bowl. The Wildcats can play with the big boys.
Pete Fiutak of CollegeFootballNews thinks they'll surprise some people:
Northwestern - The defense will be up to Pat Fitzgerald's high standards, the offensive line should be among the Big Ten's best, and the backfield will crank out rushing yards in chunks. Missing Ohio State is a major plus, and not getting Michigan, even in its mediocre rebuilding phase, isn't a bad thing, and the record should be excellent, at least early on, before dealing with a tough finishing kick.
Schedule-wise, this game is sandwiched between a road trip to Ann Arbor and that game with the team from Columbus. So no pressure there, huh? For the Wildcats, they play Indiana before us, and head to Iowa the week after.
Also, given the general interest for the rest of the world in this game, it likely will be a noon start, central time--11 am for us back east. We have not been real sharp in early games of late. (I am really hoping that Illinois is played at 3:30!)
If Penn State performs the way I expect, we should be undefeated coming into this game. Can we avoid the let-down? Could this be the "Iowa" game of 2009? Who knows, but the Wildcats are certainly capable of winning a football game if we come in flat and unemotional. It's hard to keep up the intensity week to week, but in a conference like the Big Ten, you have to.