For anyone who watched last year's Michigan vs. Penn State game and then skipped the rest of the season for some good antiquing, you may see the initial two-touchdown-favorite Nittany Lions in 2017 and be utterly shocked. For the rest of us, though, who watched Michigan's and PSU's seasons play out, we're simply...well, utterly shocked.
The Wolverines pounded the Nittany Lions last season, 49-10, and while critics will say that PSU was riddled with injuries and that they were a different team from later in the season, the fact remains that the Maize and Blue were superior on that day.
Michigan went on to win 10 games and only lose three (by a total of five points). How, then, has this betting line been established?
It wasn't about what Michigan did. It was all about the Nittany Lions.
In the seventh contest of the 2016 season, Penn State hosted Ohio State in late October, under the lights, in front of a white out crowd. I think we all remember the result: a surprising, catapulting victory for the program that gave momentum to make an incredible late-season surge. They went on to not only take the division title, but also the conference title and a Rose Bowl berth.
In 2017, Michigan will travel to Beaver Stadium to face the Nittany Lions, in their seventh game of the season, in late October, in front of a white out crowd.
What could go wrong?
"What's all this 'white out' business about?"
An entire stadium of fans coordinating the color of their t-shirts first began, I believe, in the Roman Colosseum. The Romans believed, with white being such an intimidating color, that it would give the fans more sway over the competition playing out before them. Penn State agreed with this logic.
Now, I don't know the psychology behind this tactic (though I believe it is derived from a Freudian theory), but I know many schools do it. Does it work? Does it provide a competitive advantage to the home team?
Penn State has been "whiting out" Happy Valley for over a decade. When it's a night game and the lights are cast over the enormous crowd, it looks pretty cool. And you could certainly argue for the home team advantage: PSU's won its last three home night games.
However, these games aren't always played under the lights (sometimes they are as early as noon starts).
Recently, the PSU athletic department announced that its 2017 hosting of Michigan would once again be one of these "white out" games. It'll be the fifth time in series history that the Wolverines face the white crowd.
Michigan won the first matchup, an 8pm start in 2006, and then fell in 2010 (8pm) and 2013 (5pm) before winning again in 2015 (noon). The time has yet to be announced for this year's game, but the Nittany Lions would be wise to play it as late in the day as possible.
"Who are Penn State's playmakers on offense?"
There are a few players you need to know, and unless you are just now becoming a college football fan, you've probably already heard their names. (When you lead into an opponent preview with "you already know these studs" it's not good news for your team.)
Starting quarterback Trace McSorley is a scrappy, gritty player who seemed to get better and better as the season went on a year ago.
Not overly intimidating in any one facet of the game, he simply seems to make plays when the time calls for it. He's got a little bit of elusiveness, a decent arm and a ton of poise, which helps him do stuff like this:
The real early Heisman candidate on the roster is running back Saquon Barkley. He broke out in his freshman season and then only seemed to get better last year. I could ramble on and on about his talent, but I'd rather just show you.
First, he's got freakish athleticism:
When he finds a seam, forget about him. He's gone:
Linebackers have to eye him every play, because he's not only deadly on the ground. Penn State will look for several ways to get the ball in his hands:
And lastly, the greatest players make the big plays when the game is on the line. Last season, Barkley separated himself as a great player:
Now on to the receiving corps. The biggest loss for this unit was receiver Chris Godwin, who departed for the NFL a year early. However, with star tight end Mike Gesicki -- a Jake Butt type of playmaker -- and receivers DaeSean Hamilton and DeAndre Thompkins all returning, McSorley should have no shortage of weapons to work with.
This Penn State offense is loaded with talent. Last season, Michigan was able to take full advantage of its experience when facing the younger Nittany Lions offense early in the season, but the tables will be turned in 2017. Can a young Michigan defense go into Beaver Stadium and handle a seasoned Penn State offense? By game seven, my money says they can.
But when McSorley or Barkley is hot, they are awfully tough to stop.
"Anyone the Michigan offense should worry about?"
Michigan will have some very talented young receivers on the field in this one, and I certainly expect them to make some big plays. However, experienced safeties like Penn State's Marcus Allen, who led the conference in tackles last year, revel in these types of matchups. Always eager to welcome new talent to the league on a blind crossing route.
Allen is a big hitter and, maybe one of the rarest traits these days, he plays very smart. Passing up the opportunity to leave early for the NFL Draft, he'll be on a mission in 2017, though it may be difficult to encore some of the big plays he made (Remember this block? Of course you do!):
Aside from Allen, the Nittany Lions have a host of players who saw playing time on defense a year ago, due to the number of early season injuries they suffered. Manny Bowen and Cam Brown, two young linebackers, saw action in all 13 games last year and will return to anchor that unit.
The defensive line loses some talent on the edge, but returns a handful of capable athletes in Parker Cothren, Curtis Cothran, Shareef Miller, Ryan Buchholz and Torrence Brown.
Overall, there's some big time experience on this side of the ball for Penn State, but this matchup seems to favor the Wolverines (if ever so slightly).
"How will Michigan fare in Happy Valley?"
Even with a season opener in Dallas against a tough Florida Gators squad, this will be Michigan's most challenging game up to this point in the season (sorry Sparty). That said, it's certainly winnable for the Maize and Blue.
The experts in Vegas are picturing a 53-point swing from last season's matchup with Penn State. That's not likely, but a 39-point swing makes this a tie game.
This one will come down to the wire. Both teams will have experience at quarterback and some playmakers around them.
This will be Penn State's marquee home game in 2017. If it's under the lights (which is likely), Michigan will have no room for error.
Can the young Michigan secondary keep up with the explosive Nittany Lions offense? Can Penn State slow down Wilton Speight and the Wolverines ground attack, something they couldn't do in 2016?
Someone will make a big play to win this game in the final minute. But who? Chris Evans? Trace McSorley? Tarik Black? Saquon Barkley? Rashan Gary?
This will be must-watch college football at its finest.