In recent history, the Big Ten has received a lot of negative commentary surrounding their performances in bowl games and in big games against other power conference teams in general. Likewise, Penn State fans have been grumbling about the Nittany Lions' performances against top teams both in and outside of the Big Ten.
This article takes a closer look at Penn State's success in the most recent era, which I consider to be from 2005 through the present. The 2005 season was when PSU burst back onto the national scene with a one-loss season and a BCS-bowl win.
In the past six seasons, Penn State has compiled an overall record of 58 wins and 19 losses, while outscoring opponents 2,297-1,273.
This equates to a 75 percent winning percentage and scoring over 1.8 times as many points as opponents.
PSU has also reached a bowl game in each of the last six seasons, twice playing in a BCS bowls. Their overall record in these bowl games is 4-2 (1-1 in BCS bowls).
By all accounts, the Nittany Lions have enjoyed tremendous overall success over this time horizon.
BIG TEN GAMES
Penn State has also posted an impressive mark of 33-15 in Big Ten games since 2005. In these games, the Nittany Lions have outscored opponents 1,308-883.
There are four teams in the Big Ten which PSU has not lost to since 2005: Purdue, Northwestern, Indiana and Minnesota. Penn State is 4-0 against each of these teams individually (for a combined record of 16-0). This shows the Nittany Lions ability to win games they should, as these four teams are likely the consensus worst teams in the conference as of late.
Ignoring these four teams, Penn State's record is a slightly less impressive 17-15 against the remaining six Big Ten teams. They have still outscored these teams 814-629.
The Nittany Lions have winning records against Wisconsin (3-1), Michigan State (4-2) and Illinois (4-2). Penn State is even in their games with Michigan (3-3) and has losing records to only Iowa (1-3) and Ohio State (2-4).
The success against Wisconsin deserves more praise, as PSU has outscored the Badgers by an impressive margin of 124-41. Though the two teams did not meet last season in Wisconsin's most successful season of late, the Badgers have been consistently good in the other years as well.
The record against Michigan includes three heart-breaking losses to the Wolverines under coach Lloyd Carr and three largely convincing victories over his successor Rich Rodriguez.
Penn State's losing efforts against Ohio State include being outscored 74-43. However, when considering that the Buckeyes have finished in the AP Top 10 for each of these six seasons, two wins in six tries against these guys can hardly cause too much complaint.
For Nittany Lion fans, the most frustrating of these records is likely the 1-3 mark against the Iowa Hawkeyes. Iowa ruined the dream of an undefeated season in 2009 with a last-second field goal and pounded the Nittany Lions in 2010 and 2011 in Big Ten openers. The lack of success against the Hawkeyes is likely a product of not matching up well against their dominating offensive and defensive lines, and also catching the Hawkeyes for their four most talented teams in the time period.
NON CONFERENCE GAMES
In games against non-conference opponents overall, PSU is an astounding 25-4. However, this is misleading because PSU schedules three to four easy matchups per season.
If we only include non-conference games against teams in a power conference (Big 12, Big East, ACC, SEC or Pac-10), Penn State is a more reasonable 8-4 with a 316-251 scoring margin.
The Nittany Lions are 2-2 against the SEC, 1-1 against the Pac 10, 2-0 against the Big East, 1-0 against the ACC and 1-0 against the Big 12.
The record for PSU in these games is really a good indicator of their competitiveness against top teams in other conferences because nearly all of these games (with the exception of the two games against Syracuse) have been against high-quality competition. The record against the SEC should be viewed as a plus since the SEC has been viewed as the best conference in the country in recent history.
Penn State has been extremely successful at Beaver Stadium, posting 37 wins to only six losses. The Lions have scored nearly 2.5 as many points as their opponents with a scoring margin of 1,415-586.
At neutral sites, PSU has also fared well. All of these games have been bowl games with the exception of last season's game against Indiana in Washington, D.C. Penn State is 5-2 in games at neutral fields, but with a weaker scoring margin of 178-166.
The Nittany Lions also have a winning record (16-11) on the road, which includes outscoring opponents 704 to 521.
While the road record leaves some room for improvement, the dominance at home and at neutral sites has been a big key for the team's success.
GAMES AGAINST RANKED OPPONENTS
This is the category in which Penn State has received the most scrutiny in recent years. The rankings I use here are end-of-season rankings in the AP Top 25 Poll.
Against opponents who ended the season ranked in the Top-25, Penn State has notched eight wins to 14 losses in the past six seasons. In these games, the Nittany Lions have been outscored 493-447.
Of the 22 games PSU has played against these Top 25 opponents, half of them have been against teams ranked in the top 10 at seasons end. In these games, the Lions are a meager 2-9 while being outscored 124-256. The two wins (and four of the losses) have all come against Ohio State. The other three losses have been against Iowa, USC and Alabama.
If we only look at games against teams finishing the season ranked between 15 and 25, then Penn State has a winning mark at 6-5 with a scoring advantage of 323-237.
These results make some sense, as Penn State has finished most of the past six seasons as a team ranked in the 10-20 range.
Overall, it is difficult to not be impressed with how the Nittany Lions have performed since 2005. However, PSU fans are rightfully demanding and always want the most out of their football teams. The best way for Penn State to improve is to find a way to beat more ranked opponents.
There are likely many schools of thought as to how to do this, but one of the biggest keys has to be more opportunities. While the recent home-and-home series with Alabama is a huge step in the right direction, I'd like to see the Nittany Lions continue to schedule more (in quantity) challenging opponents in the offseason to better prepare themselves for top-notch competition.