Last season, Penn State's non-conference schedule could have cost them a National Championship berth. The Lions beat one quality opponent at home in Oregon State, and trounced inferior opponents Coastal Carolina, Temple, and Syracuse (away).
Had PSU not lost a late lead at Iowa, they would have finished the regular season undefeated. However, most of the college football media felt the Lions may not have had the resume to make the National Championship game even had they beaten the Hawkeyes.
This year, the Nittany Lion's non-conference slate is even worse. They play all four games at home, and against the likes of Akron, Syracuse, Temple, and Eastern Illinois. Even the most casual of college football fans should know that PSU's third string should be able to handle those teams.
The non-conference scheduling doesn't get much better for the Lions either. In 2010, the Lions will visit Alabama, but they also host Youngstown State, Kent State, and Temple. Penn State has Temple scheduled for both the 2011 and 2012 seasons as well, and also has committed to host Eastern Michigan in 2010.
These "cupcake" games do nothing but shorten the actual regular season from 12 games to eight or nine. Upsets can happen, but the likelihood is so small it is not even worth mentioning.
So why does Penn State schedule these easier teams? The answer is simple.
The Big Ten Conference splits television revenues evenly amongst all its teams regardless of which games are featured in a given week. This means that Penn State, Indiana, and all of the other Big 10 teams make just as much TV revenue as Ohio State when the Buckeyes take on USC. In addition, college football teams make almost infinitely more money off of home games than they do away games.
Thus Penn State has no real financial incentive (at least for TV revenue) to schedule a quality opponent. Further, PSU knows that other power conference teams will only come play at Beaver Stadium if the Lions will agree to travel to their place the next season.
However, lower FBS teams and FCS teams will travel to Happy Valley without requiring a return trip. And PSU also has the luxury of being able to nearly sell out every home game regardless of the quality of opponent. Thus, PSU can guarantee itself seven or eight home games each season by scheduling these weaker teams.
Other college football problems face this financial dilemma as well, and the scheduling of weak non-conference opponents is a problem highly correlated with the postseason system in college football. With more games that actually test a team’s ability, it would be much easier to pick which ones are better than others at season’s end.
But the perils of a weak non-conference schedule should be very clear to the Nittany Lions, if not from last season than from the most recent PSU basketball season.
The PSU basketball squad rolled through an extremely weak non-conference schedule and finished tied for fourth in the final Big Ten Conference standings. However, numerous teams with worse records in and out of conference qualified for the NCAA Tournament while the Nittany Lions were left out. The reason, without a doubt, was the lack of quality non-conference wins.
As it turned out, PSU was able to run the table and win the NIT Tournament. Had they beaten teams like Notre Dame, Florida, Baylor, or even Rhode Island or George Mason in the regular season, they would have made the tournament.
The formula for making the NCAA Basketball Tournament is simple. Play tough teams, win 20 games, and you will be dancing in March. The basketball program has now learned from its mistake and has generated a more respectable schedule for the upcoming season.
The football team though clearly has not. Despite a much-maligned BCS system, the formula for making the National Championship in football is also rather simple (at least for power conference teams). Play tough teams, go undefeated, and you will be in the National Championship game.
Since the institution of the BCS, this formula has never failed. Even the 2004 Auburn Tigers that went undefeated and were left out of the title game had extremely weak non-conference opponents (Louisiana-Monroe, Louisiana Tech, and the Citadel).
Penn State is one of the college football teams that enters each season with a hope of a BCS National Championship. However, even if the Lions run the table they are leaving the possibility open to being left out of the title game. The 2005 and 2008 teams are prime examples.
The PSU athletic department should be more concerned with providing its football team with the resources to win a National Championship than with making money. And if money is a concern, there are numerous ways for them to cut down on miscellaneous expenses for the football team.
The football team has study areas, weight rooms, locker rooms, and many other resources that are separate from the rest of PSU’s athletic teams.
As a PSU fan, I would be devastated to see the team have an undefeated season and not make the BCS Championship. Learn from the recent football seasons as well as the basketball team and allow your team to prove itself worthy of a National Championship, rather than leaving its fate up to chance even after an undefeated season.