Year after year, the Penn State football schedule reads like a high school team exhibition rotation. Temple, Syracuse, and Akron are just a few of the teams that litter the 2009 Nittany Lions' matchup list. The question is, where have the big schools gone?
I'm going to break down important Penn State rivalries, both current teams and former ones that fans long for.
Probably the greatest matchup to come out of Penn State joining the Big Ten was getting Ohio State every year. They are designated rivals by conference alignment. Pennsylvania and Ohio are natural born football rivals.
The series is tied 12-12, but Ohio State leads 10-6 in conference play. The Nittany Lions' most recent game against the Buckeyes was a 13-6 victory in Columbus to ultimately share the Big Ten title. Due to the popularity of the rivalry, many games are played at night.
Another designated rival, Penn State plays Michigan State the final game of the regular season. The two schools play for the Lang Grant Trophy. Since joining the Big Ten in 1993, the Nittany Lions have beaten the Spartans 12 of 16 times, including the first four games. Many games have been played prior to Penn State joining the conference and thus not included in the trophy.
Michigan State has not won in Beaver Stadium since 1965. Though played at the same time every year, the majority of fans are less than enthused about the rivalry.
Though not played every year, the rivalry with a top tier program creates excitement around State College, PA. Prior to 2008 the Wolverines held a nine-game win streak over the frustrated Nittany Lions, the most heartbreaking being a last second Michigan touchdown in 2005 that cost Penn State a perfect season.
In the most recent matchup, the streak was crushed by a 46-17 Penn State victory. Since the departure of head coach Lloyd Carr, the Michigan program has suffered while giving Penn State an opportunity to further exert dominance over their conference nemesis.
Without question the lamest of all rivals that are played each year. Temple, a MAC school, most recently posted a 5-7 season. Syracuse was once a formidable opponent but can no longer compete in a hyper-competitive college football landscape today. The ugly truth is that these rivals would only matter if Penn State played them in basketball.
The popular theory for Penn State continuing to play these schools is to give the football program easy fodder before conference play begins.
Now for the rivalries that Penn State has lost over the years.
The Pennsylvania Classic was formally the biggest game on Penn State's schedule—two in-state rivals that hated each other. Once considered the fiercest rivalry north of the Mason-Dixon line, the rivalry went into a downward spiral in the 1990s when both former independents joined separate conferences and thus had fewer scheduling opportunities. The last game was played in 2000 with a 12-0 Pittsburgh victory.
Though talk of renewing the rivalry has been discussed, the Penn State plan of two home games to one has been rejected by Pitt's athletic department. Despite the eight-year absence, the two schools' students still maintain a mutual animosity towards each other: two major programs sharing a state, separated by just 130 miles.
Two powerhouse programs squaring off would turn heads, and for 12 straight seasons that is what the Nittany Lions and Fighting Irish did. The stretch from 1981 to 1992 saw Joe Paterno and Penn State amass a 12-4 record against Lou Holtz and Notre Dame. During that time Notre Dame won a national championship, while Penn State won two. Prior to this Penn State never beat Notre Dame, including a loss in the 1976 Gator Bowl.
The series ended in 1992 with Penn State joining the Big Ten and Notre Dame remaining independent. Recently the two schools played a home and home series in 2006 and 2007, with Penn State winning the second game 31-10 in a much anticipated rematch game at Beaver Stadium.
It had everything a football program could miss—dominance over a major team for national exposure. Penn State ended their series with West Virginia in 1992, but not before posting an all-time record of 48-9-2. The Nittany Lions even had a 25-game winning streak over the Mountaineers from 1959-1983 compared to West Virginia's longest streak of just three games.
Clearly lopsided, the WVU rivalry is one that Penn State would be interested in bringing back. The Nittany Lions currently have a four-game winning streak over WVU.
So there you have it—the rivals of Penn State, past and present.
Joining the Big Ten has afforded the Nittany Lions a chance to play against great programs and contend for major bowl games, including a recent trip to the Rose Bowl. Whether or not Penn State regains rivalry status with the programs mentioned remains open for discussion.
One debate is that Penn State has not been scheduling worthy competition as of late. Meanwhile, fellow Big Ten school Ohio State willingly set up short series with great teams like Texas and USC. For Penn State to remain competitive, they will need to play more big-time programs to climb in the rankings.