Penn State football’s 2023 season technically started Saturday, Sept. 2 against West Virginia in Happy Valley.
But I’ve felt for months now that this season begins this Saturday in Champaign, Illinois.
In a way, this is true from a technical standpoint.
The PSU-Illinois matchup scheduled for Sept. 16 will be the Big Ten opener for both teams, so in that sense, it applies. But I’m talking about this more metaphorically. I believe Saturday’s game will be the first chance for this Penn State team, which many feel has a chance to win a Big Ten championship, to make a statement.
I’ve had this column in my mind for weeks now, and to be frank, Illinois’ slow start to the season made me a tad apprehensive about writing it.
Before the season, the idea looked like a slam dunk.
Illinois won eight games last year. It has one of college football’s more experienced coaches in Bret Bielema and will be hosting its most prominent home opponent early in their season, which is when some of the biggest upsets happen.
Illinois hasn’t done me any favors through its first two games.
In Week 1, the Illini needed a last-second field goal to beat Toledo at home.
In Week 2, Illinois lost by 11 at Kansas in a game that could have been worse.
After thinking it over for two, maybe three minutes, I decided that this column idea would not go to waste because I still believe Penn State’s season begins Saturday.
Let’s say Illinois ends up being solid, which is still possible, especially in the wild Big Ten West. That would give Penn State a chance for a quality road win, which is never a bad thing, especially if Penn State ends up being a team the playoff committee has to think about come December’s first weekend.
Now, let’s say Illinois is, in fact, bad.
In that case, it will be harder for Penn State to make a statement, but not impossible.
Let’s think back to 2022 real quick.
PSU came into last year looking to reestablish itself as a formidable team and ended up accomplishing that objective.
For me, the first sign that the 2022 PSU squad was going to be different than the 2020-21 teams that combined to go 11-11 took place in Week 3.
PSU was at Auburn as the first Big Ten school to play a game at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Although Auburn had looked unimpressive through two weeks– it only beat San Jose State by eight at home the week before– this was thought by many to be a tough game for Penn State against a historic program in the heart of SEC country. We didn’t know much about either team, thus there was a lot of intrigue coming into the matchup aside from the novelty of the Big Ten invading Toomer’s Corner.
Well, Penn State ended up not just winning the game but making a statement, 41-12.
Auburn ended up going 5-7. Still, winning at Jordan-Hare in dominant fashion turned some PSU skeptics into believers, and that belief proved to be accurate in Pasadena.
This year, things are a little different.
Penn State’s re-established itself.
At this time last year, people were wondering when Penn State would be good again.
Now, the question is if Penn State can be great.
The 2022 team wouldn’t have reached the heights it did if it lost to Auburn.
It’s hard to picture the 2023 Penn State team being great if it can’t beat Illinois.
Aside from the vibes surrounding Penn State football, there are differences between this year’s Week 3 matchup and last year’s. For one, there’s no novelty to this year’s game. Penn State hasn’t played at Illinois since 2018. Still, Penn State-Illinois is still a matchup many fans of both schools are used to seeing, which is the opposite of Penn State-Auburn.
A year ago, many Auburn fans wanted coach Bryan Harsin fired, and Penn State’s rout helped the cause.
Illinois’ coaching situation is much more stable.
Maybe some Illini fans want Bielema gone, but the smart ones don’t.
Bielema hasn’t worked miracles in Champaign. But he helped the program to eight wins last season, which hadn’t been done at Illinois since 2007.
Another difference is that despite Illinois being more stable in 2023 than Auburn was in 2022, there seems to be less stress about this Week 3 matchup from Penn State fans, and this is backed up by and partially because of the odds.
Penn State was a 2.5-point favorite at Auburn.
Early in the week, PSU is a double-digit favorite.
That’s significant for a road team in a Big Ten game.
It also means that, in all likelihood, the only way for Penn State to turn heads will be to not just win, but crush Illinois.
In boxing terms, this game will have to be a knockout. The perception is that Illinois is a mid-level fighter. The program is seen as a stepping stone for Penn State on the way to its championship-level bouts with at Ohio State (Oct. 21) and at home against Michigan (Nov. 11).
Despite what Vegas says, despite what Penn State did last year and despite Illinois’ slow start, I still see this as Penn State’s first test of 2023 and its first chance to make a statement.
I’ll have my predictions later in the week. What I’ll say now is that Penn State made a statement by rocking Auburn on the road in Week 3 last year.
Rocking Illinois might not have the same impact. But it would be a sign that this 2023 team is as good as many think.