As Penn State coach James Franklin noted on Thursday afternoon during his podium session at Big Ten Media Days, it’s hard to ignore that opening game.
“We’ve had a countdown clock going on in our facility, but I must admit having Wisconsin’s logo up there has really raised the standard for our guys,” Franklin said.
For a second-straight season the Nittany Lions are going to have their hands full in the opening weeks of the year. While the lead-up to the 2020 campaign wasn’t exactly orthodox due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a one-two punch on the road at Indiana and then back home to host Ohio State left little room for the usual feeling of easing into the year.
And in 2021, an argument could be made that the challenge is even more difficult, albeit with a far more normal offseason before that first snap. It’s well documented at this point, but a refresher – Week 1 it’s the Badgers, a somewhat self-explanatory obstacle against the West Division’s premiere program. Week 2 it’s MAC Conference favorites in Ball State who boast a ton of talent and star receiver Justin Hall who was named to the Biletnikoff Award watch list on Thursday [given to the nation’s top receiver] for the second time in his career.
In Week 3 the challenge only continues against quarterback Bo Nix and an Auburn Tiger program out of the SEC under new head coach Bryan Harsin.
So yea, get your sweets in now, because there are no cupcakes to start out the year.
“We got a pretty challenging early part of our schedule, not only from a Big Ten perspective but also from an out of conference perspective as well,” Franklin said earlier this spring. “I think it’s a motivator for our guys. We’re gonna find out – we’re gonna have a pretty good idea of who we are very early and be tested. In some ways you could make some comparisons to maybe the 2016 season. We faced a pretty tough schedule very early on, and we’re able to grow from that as the year went on.”
Of course Franklin will hope to do a bit better than the 1-2 star the Nittany Lions had in 2016, but then again, finishing the season with a Big Ten Title and a very valid claim for a playoff appearance – there are worst things than big tests early on in the season.
A good start would likely do wonders for the program though, the Nittany Lions are technically on a four-game wining streak but on the heels of an 0-5 start that stunned one of the more successful teams of the past half decade. A strong start – especially a win on the road in Madison – would put much of 2020’s demons in the mirror and do wonders for quarterback Sean Clifford’s own personal stock inside and outside the Lasch Building. A few losses, and the oddities of 2020 feel not so much a thing of the past.
But for now the clock in that same building ticks down, and with it the early season challenges get closer and closer.
Oh and don’t forget those trips to Iowa and Ohio State, a rematch against Indiana, hosting a desperate Michigan program and heading to an always tricky East Lansing to face Michigan State.