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Penn State Football: Nation's Fifth-Toughest Schedule Awaits No. 16 Nittany Lions

by on October 31, 2011 12:04 AM

Penn State’s path to a 8-1 record may not have been as easy as you -- or the poll voters -- think.

And the backward bounce of Illinois’ failed field goal on Saturday may have a lot to do with it.

Of course, given that six of their last seven victories have been by a total of 38 points -- a whopping 6.33 per game -- hasn’t helped, either.

Nevertheless, the Nittany Lions’ 10-7 snowy squeaker over the Illini -- thanks to a heroic Matt McGloin-led drive and a failed Illini field goal attempt as time expired in Beaver Stadium -- was enough to help bounce them higher in the latest national rankings.

Penn State, even though at 5-0 the only team undefeated in Big Ten Conference play, was mired at No. 15, 16, 16 and 16 in the college football polls released on Sunday. (Exact details below.)

“I think Penn State is so low because they are winning, but not impressively, and because their schedule has been soft,” said Jerry Palm, who runs CollegeBCS.com and writes a column for CBSSports.com. Palm has been tracking and dissecting the BCS since its origins in 1998, and he’s usually right.

However, the Nittany Lions’ slate to date is not nearly as bad as most people think. It wasn't bad at all. In fact, Penn State’s road to 8-1 was tougher than 72 percent of the other teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

Penn State’s schedule of games played to-date ranks No. 34 in the nation among the 120 teams in the FBS, according to the NCAA.

And among the 15 teams ahead of the Nittany Lions in the latest BCS rankings, only six have already faced an overall tougher group of opponents -- Virginia Tech, Oklahoma, Boise State, Clemson, LSU, Oklahoma and Nebraska.

FIFTH-TOUGHEST REMAINING SCHEDULE

Ah, Nebraska.

Nebraska is a big reason why Penn State’s schedule suddenly gets even tougher, no matter how you measure it.

According to the latest NCAA statistics, the Nittany Lions have the fifth-toughest finish to the season among all 120 FBS teams, based on their remaining foes’ records (16-6) against FBS (major college) teams. In the FBS, only South Carolina (13-2) has a tougher remaining schedule.

Penn State’s next three opponents are a combined 18-6 against all foes. The finishing slate:

Nov. 12, at Beaver Stadium vs. Nebraska (7-1, 4-1), ranked 10th in the BCS. The Huskers host Northwestern (3-5, 1-4) on Saturday, followed by Penn State, at Michigan and at home vs. Iowa.

Nov. 19, at The Horseshoe, Columbus vs. Ohio State (5-3, 2-2). The unranked Buckeyes host Indiana (1-8, 0-5) on Saturday, followed by at Purdue, Penn State and at Michigan.

Nov. 26, at Camp Randall Stadium, Madison vs. Wisconsin (6-2, 2-2), ranked 20th in the BCS. The Badgers host Purdue (3-4, 2-2) on Saturday, followed by at Minnesota, at Illinois and Penn State.

“We're going to play an outstanding football team our next game,” Joe Paterno said on Saturday after becoming the winningest coach in major college football history, with 409 victories. “We have a week off and then we have to play Nebraska at home. Then we have to play Ohio State and then go to Wisconsin. We'll find out how good we are.”

Even if the Nittany Lions win out, they may find themselves boxed out of the BCS national championship game on Jan. 9, 2012, in New Orleans – unless, perhaps, they make it to and win the inaugural Big Ten Championship game on Dec. 3 in Indianapolis.

“Winning out would definitely help, but keep in mind that the highest-rated team in the league right now is Nebraska at No. 10,” said Palm. “So it's not like Penn State is ever going to get a crack at a Top 5 team.

“I don't see any reasonable shot for any Big Ten team to play for the BCS title this year.”

Somewhat ironic, since the Big Ten (with five) is second among conferences with teams in the BCS Top 25, behind the SEC, with six.

In the BCS rankings, which determine the teams that play in the five biggest college bowl games, there are six undefeated teams ahead of Penn State – five at 8-0 and one at 7-0.

Seven more teams at 7-1 are ahead of Penn State, and even two 8-1 teams (Clemson, Virginia Tech) are ahead of Penn State, now No. 16 in the BCS.

POLLING THE POLLS

Here’s how Penn State jumped in the polls this week, to:

-- No. 16 from 19th in the BCS rankings.

-- No. 15 from 19th in the USA Today coaches’ poll.

-- No. 16 from 21st in The Associated Press writer/broadcaster poll.

-- No. 16 from 19th in the Harris Interactive College Football Poll.

The Harris Poll, though it gets little attention, has real poll pull. One-third of the BCS rankings is based on the Harris Poll, one-third is based on the USA Today poll and one-third is based on the average computer ranking of six computer ratings. The 2011 Harris poll is comprised of 115 panelists and includes former coaches, players, administrators and current and former media.

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Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979. He is a senior lecturer in Penn State's College of Communications and teaches a pair of classes in the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism: “Sports Writing” and “Introduction to the Sports Industry.” He created and taught for several years the Center’s course on “Joe Paterno, Communications and The Media.” Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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