College football scheduling is a bizarre endeavor. Non-conference games are decided years in advance when many of the players that will factor into their outcomes are still high schoolers or younger. Conference slates are of course somewhat more predictable, but the random ordering of things can play a big factor. Things still have a way of evening out over the course of a season though.
Penn State's 2019 schedule ended up being set up perfectly for what this version of the Nittany Lions became. For a team as reliant on so many young players, many of whom are making their first significant contributions, three straight games at home, and the first five against unranked teams provided the perfect way to ease an inexperienced group into major college football.
Boy does that change on Saturday night.
Perhaps no venue in the Big Ten has created as much mystique for the weird as Iowa's Kinnick Stadium. Nittany Lion fans know this as well as any fanbase. In 2008, an undefeated Penn State squad saw a nine-point fourth quarter lead evaporate along with its hopes for a national title shot. Just two years ago, the visitors thoroughly dominated practically every phase of the game, but still needed a Saquon Barkley performance for the ages and a walk-off touchdown to claim victory. In 2016, Michigan saw its Big Ten and national title hopes take a massive hit under the Kinnick lights, while the Buckeyes melted down a year later to cost them their own shot at a playoff berth.
Penn State will arrive in Iowa City on Saturday evening with all of this providing the backdrop to 2019's biggest game to date, and with an opportunity to put the first of several potential emphatic stamps of success on the campaign. Despite sitting in the top-10 of each of the major polls, plenty of fair questions remain about just how good the 2019 Nittany Lions truly are. Even with a seven-point victory over Pitt, they have an average margin of victory nearly 40 points per game, having allowed a rather absurd, mere 37 points through five games. The caveat, of course, is that those results have all come against teams ranked 36th or lower in SP+.
The Hawkeyes are an entirely different animal. They come in ranked inside of the top-20 in both the AP and Coaches Poll and feature a defense ranked third nationally in points allowed per game. Surefire first-round NFL Draft pick A.J. Epenesa anchors a unit that will test Penn State in a way they have not been tested yet this year. While the Iowa offense won't be confused for the likes of Ohio State, Alabama, or Oklahoma, Nate Stanley and Co. are perhaps the most balanced unit to appear in the first half of the schedule.
The stakes are high for Penn State. The absurd moving target of the "road ranked win" can be checked off the list emphatically. The following week's prime time White Out vs. Michigan can be cranked up a notch or two.
But the most critical is also the most obvious. The Nittany Lions can make their first declaration of the year that they shouldn't be counted out of anything.