Twenty years have passed since Penn State was an independent power in college football and began the seismic change in college football’s landscape regarding conference affiliations when they
joined the Big Ten Conference.
In 1993, Penn State began play in the Big Ten, and despite having a down year in 1992 with a 7-5 record, Penn State fans expected that the Nittany Lions would be in the triumvirate of power in the Big Ten with Ohio State and Michigan. Only the year before, Penn State finished 11-2, ranked No. 3 in the country and was coming off two national championships in the previous decade. Justifiably, Nittany Lions fans had high hopes and expectations.
Another reason for optimism was that Ohio State was not its usual dominant self either. In the previous six years, the Buckeyes' record was a non-impressive 41-25-4. Michigan appeared to be the stronger of the two schools as in the prior three years. Under head coach Gary Moeller, the Wolverines had a record of 28-5-3. Witnessing how the Pac-10 Conference champion would routinely beat up the Big Ten champion in the Rose Bowl, the big two and little eight didn't seem Everest-like at all, not with a youthful 66-year-old Joe Paterno roaming the sidelines.
In that inaugural season, perhaps as a portent of things to come, the Nittany Lions were turned away on a goal line stand against Michigan in a 21-13 loss at home, and the following game lost 24-6 at Ohio State.
Those seeds of disappointment in 1993 would reap undeniable determination the following season. In 1994, in only their second year in the Big Ten, Penn State went undefeated with a high-powered balanced attack offense that had no peer, perhaps in the history of college football. Surprisingly though, 2005 and 2008 would be the only other seasons that would see the Nittany Lions capture a Big Ten title.
So why did the Nittany Lions not live up to their fans expectations for Big Ten success? Critics are quick to point out that Penn State’s schedule as an independent was void of strong competition, which is a fallacy. In the three years prior to beginning Big Ten play (1990-1992), the Nittany Lions faced Alabama, Miami, Notre Dame, Texas and USC during those years in the regular season. Therefore, it wasn’t the fact that Penn State wasn’t used to playing upper echelon teams in college football.
The inability of Penn State’s offensive line to move Michigan’s defense in that goal line stand in 1993 would foreshadow Penn State’s fortunes in the Big Ten. Just one more first down late in the game against Minnesota in 1999 may have been enough to run out the clock and prevent a Goliath-like upset by the Gophers ending Penn State’s undefeated season. Many recall quarterback Zack Mills running for his life behind porous pass protection during his years at Penn State.
In the years Penn State did win a Big Ten conference title, it was no coincidence that they had at least one offensive lineman make All-American during those seasons.
More likely the fact for Penn State’s disappointment was that the Big Ten raised its level of play and it was no longer the big two and the little eight. Wisconsin and Northwestern improved dramatically and perennial doormat Purdue became respectable and competed for Big Ten supremacy several times. Minnesota under head coach Glen Mason became competitive as well and managed to defeat the Nittany Lions four consecutive times.
If you asked Nittany Lions fans back in 1993 about the next 20 years, they certainly would have expected to win more conference championships than Northwestern (both won three outright or co-championships) and certainly didn't expect to have half as many Big Ten titles as Wisconsin. Prior to the Nittany Lions joining the Big Ten, Wisconsin’s last conference championship was in 1962 and Northwestern’s in 1936.
The man most responsible for Wisconsin’s resurgence to power was Burgettstown, PA native Barry Alvarez. Alvarez lifted Wisconsin to the upper echelon of the Big Ten competing with perennial powers Ohio State and Michigan. From 1985 to 1992 the Badgers were only 12-52 in conference play. In 1993, his fourth season as Wisconsin head coach, dramatic improvement began to take place. Wisconsin would win the Big Ten title that year and play in the Rose Bowl for the first time in 31 years.
Considering how strong Wisconsin has been over the past two decades, Penn State’s overall 7-7 record against the Badgers is a respectable one.
Thanks to head coaches Gary Barnett and later Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern went from annual conference cellar dweller to annual bowl participant. In the 20 seasons from 1973-1992 the Wildcats won only 29 conference games. In the last 20 years Northwestern has won 70. The Wildcats
surprised the college football world by winning the Big Ten championship in 1995, their first in nearly 60 years.
A similar transformation took place in Lafayette, Indiana, where head coach Joe Tiller took Purdue from Big Ten doormat to an annual bowl participant and to a Big Ten championship in 2000 and a trip to the Rose Bowl, Purdue’s first since 1967. Even Illinois rose up and won a Big Ten title in 2001.
Iowa and Michigan State would each win a Big Ten title as well and both finished with an above .500
winning percentage for the past 20 years in conference play.The Hawkeyes were 81-78-1 and Michigan State had a record of 80-79-1.
The Nittany Lions particularly struggled against Iowa as they were only 7-9 against the Hawkeyes since joining the Big Ten Conference.
Lastly, there was the matter of the two Goliaths of the conference. Ohio State won or shared ten conference titles the past 20 years and Michigan five. In the previous 20 years from 1973-1992, Michigan won or shared 13 conference titles and Ohio State nine.
The Buckeyes were clearly the class of the conference the past 20 years with a 124-35-1 for a .778 winning percentage. Michigan was second best with a 109-51 record and a .681 winning percentage. The Nittany Lions had the third best conference record at 102-58 .638 with Wisconsin not far behind at 97-60-3 and a winning percentage of .615.
Penn State had a record of 7-13 versus the Buckeyes since 1993 with a 5-5 mark at Beaver Stadium and 2-8 at the Horseshoe in Columbus. Against the Wolverines, the Nittany Lions were 6-10 with an unimaginable nine-game losing streak when Lloyd Carr was head coach of Michigan.
Nittany Lion fans can take some solace in that Michigan fared only slightly better against Ohio State
going 8-12 vs. the Buckeyes during the past 20 seasons. Wisconsin managed to go 5-10-1 vs. Ohio State. Perhaps the oddest records of note were Purdue going 4-4 vs. Ohio State in Lafayette and Ohio
State being just 5-4 vs. Illinois at home since 1993.
Have the past 20 seasons of conference play tempered Penn State’s fans future expectations? Will three conference championships in the next 20 years be good enough for Nittany Lion fans?
Although no one expects future Big Ten schools Maryland and Rutgers to contend for conference football titles anytime soon, the recent addition of Nebraska in 2011 has made winning a conference title an even more difficult task.
The resurgence of Michigan under head coach Brady Hoke and the stellar recruiting classes he and head coach Urban Meyer at Ohio State attract, Penn State may do well to match their success of the past 20 seasons.
Enter first-year head coach Bill O’Brien, succeeding a coaching legend, and despite NCAA sanctions wins national coaching of the year honors. Once those sanctions are over, I suspect those lofty expectations Penn State fans had will return.