|Photo creds to NJ.com|
Over the past year, the Penn State football program has been no stranger to big games.
In the past 365 days, the Nittany Lions have shocked Ohio State, beat Wisconsin in the Big 10 championship game and formed one-half of a Rose Bowl for the ages in what was essentially a road game. Penn State is battle-tested, and that is why it sits at it's highest ranking in almost two decades. The way I see it, however, tonight's game against "That team up north," is a whole different animal than what these Lions are used to.
There are a few aspects of tonight's matchup that make it different from anything these players have faced in their college careers. The first and perhaps the most obvious one is that College GameDay will be in Happy Valley for the first time since 2009. It might seem ridiculous to think that a pregame show could have an impact on Penn State's mindsets. But Lee Corso being in State College signifies that the biggest game in America is happening in Happy Valley. It's also worth noting that, the last time GameDay was at Beaver Stadium, Penn State laid an egg against a seemingly inferior Iowa team, 21-10. Like that Iowa game, the Nittany Lions come in ranked in the top five and are expected to handle their opponent pretty well tonight. Penn State is favored by 9.5 points, and ESPN's matchup predictor gives the Nittany Lions an 87.4% chance to beat the Wolverines. The fact that Penn State is on a big stage against one of the country's top programs isn't new to these players. The fact that they are favored to win such a marquee matchup is.
Of all the big games that the Nittany Lions played in last year, they didn't necessarily have a lot of pressure on them throughout that magical run. Penn State went from 2-2 to damn near qualifying for the College Football Playoff, so to say they exceeded expectations would be an understatement. In 2017, PSU won't be sneaking up on anybody.
As impressive as last season's overnight success was, the only possible downside is that now, with the possible exception of Ohio State, the Nittany Lions are expected to win every game they play in. In 2016, the playoffs were a pipe dream until the last two weeks of the season. Now, they are a realistic possibility. With brutal road games at OSU and Michigan State looming, a loss to Michigan tonight could kill those dreams, and begin a downward spiral.
It's not like Penn State hasn't been tested this year, however. We all remember that night in Iowa City a few weeks back. But that matchup was early in the season. This game is right in the middle of crunch time, where any slip could be killer. Although Iowa is a respected program, it is not Michigan. Tonight's game will be a chance for James Franklin to do something he hasn't done in three tries; beat Jim Harbaugh. If Harbaugh gets the best of Franklin yet again, the legitimacy of Penn State's charismatic, some say pompous head coach will be called into question.
Penn State has accomplished a lot over the past year. But because the Nittany Lions are still a team on the rise, and because they haven't beaten a ranked team yet this season, there a still those who are not sold. Tonight provides a chance for these Lions to make a statement, or to fall flat on their face in the middle of a "White Out."