Penn State faces a supercharged first half of the 2021 football schedule, according to the preseason USA Today Sports AFCA Coaches Poll. Further, every ranked Big Ten team is on Penn State's schedule, underscoring the Lions' difficult path to the conference title game.
Penn State, which begins the season at No 20, will face seven teams that are ranked or have received votes in the first major college football poll of 2021. The first half of the season is particularly challenging, since it includes five teams that are ranked or received votes.
Penn State gets started at No. 15 Wisconsin, marking its first opener against a ranked team since facing No. 2 Miami in 2001. The Lions then host Ball State and Auburn, both of which received votes, in their first two home games of the season. Auburn is No. 29 in the first poll, and Ball State received five votes.
After hosting Villanova, the Lions conclude the season's first half against No. 17 Indiana and No. 18 Iowa. The season's marquee game arrives Oct. 30, when Penn State visits No. 4 Ohio State.
The preseason ranking marks a return to form for a program that slipped in 2020. Penn State began the 2020 season ranked No. 7 in the Oct. 18 poll, which was released before the team's overtime loss to Indiana. Penn State fell from the poll after a Week 2 loss to Ohio State and never returned.
Penn State returns 19 starters, including nine on offense, from the 2020 team that won its last four games before declining to participate in a bowl. Coach James Franklin has said that the program is "hungry" to return to form this season.
Franklin is among the 65 voters in the USA Today Sports AFCA Coaches Poll.