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Penn State isn’t an elite team because it never beats elite teams

Penn State’s college football program thinks an awful lot of itself.

The Nittany Lions’ supporters fill up Beaver Stadium to the tune of over 106,000 for every home game in State College, Pennsylvania. Penn State fans travel well to road games. Nittany Lions fans are cocky, arrogant and generally look down on what they consider to be inferior opponents and rivals.

As a Pitt fan, I can say all of what I just said with great confidence–at least the part about Penn State fans being cocky and arrogant–because the Panthers have generally been on the wrong end of the Pitt/Penn State rivalry my whole life. Unfortunately, the two football programs rarely play one another anymore. In fact, they’ve only met eight times since 1997, with the Nittany Lions winning six of those matchups.

The infrequent matchups between the two schools began in the early-’90s when both went from being independents to members of the Big East and Big Ten, respectively. There might be a greater sense of urgency to keep the rivalry alive if these programs weren’t worried about how a demanding non-conference schedule might affect their seasons as a whole.

Besides, while Pitt might need Penn State, the reverse isn’t true, at least according to the program and its fans. Why should the Nittany Lions care about the Panthers? They’re small potatoes. They’re nothing. Their part of the rivalry has gone from a roar to a meow in the last 30 years.

Penn State has bigger fish to fry, namely the almighty Big Ten, where the program is a major player year in and year out. The Nittany Lions have more notable rivals now in Ohio State and Michigan. Penn State plays in the Big Ten East Division, where both the Buckeyes and Wolverines reside. The winner of that division almost always goes on to capture the conference when it takes on the West Division champion in the Big Ten title game.

The Buckeyes and Wolverines are national powerhouses, like Penn State, and the winner of the Big Ten Conference usually earns a seed in the annual college football playoff.

It’s too bad the Nittany Lions never win the Big Ten conference. OK, they did it once back in 2016. Unfortunately for them, it wasn’t good enough to earn a trip to the four-team college football playoff. Ironically enough, it was the Buckeyes, whom Penn State actually defeated during the regular season, who earned a seed in the four-team playoff.

Weird, but those are the breaks, I suppose.

If you’re a Penn State fan, you might feel like telling me to shut up, that I should focus on my downtrodden Panthers program, one that will never win a national title.

OK, but are you sure the Nittany Lions ever will?

I know Penn State fans think their program is elite, but aren’t elite programs supposed to defeat other elite programs every now and then? Since James Franklin became the head coach in 2014, the Nittany Lions are 3-16 vs. top 10 programs and 1-11 vs. top five programs. As for their mighty rivals in the Big Ten East Division (their equals, if you will), under Franklin, the Nittany Lions are a combined 4-15 against Michigan and Ohio State–including 1-9 vs. the Buckeyes.

The latest defeat at the hands of Ohio State occurred last Saturday when Penn State, 6-0 and ranked seventh in the country, lost to the undefeated and third-ranked Buckeyes at Ohio Stadium by a score of 20-12.

The Nittany Lions only slipped to 10th in the latest AP poll, but it’s going to be extremely difficult to overcome the loss and make any kind of noise in the national championship picture. Perhaps if Penn State recovers and finds a way to win the East Division and then the Big Ten championship, but that would require an elusive victory over a Wolverines team that is currently undefeated and ranked second in the latest AP poll. (Michigan is also No. 1 in the latest BCS rankings.) Penn State takes on Michigan at Beaver Stadium on November 11.

What happens if the Nittany Lions defeat Michigan? I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. I’m not yet convinced that Penn State is capable of it, and even if it is, Ohio State may simply run the table.

Can Penn State make the four-team playoff without even winning its own division in the Big Ten?

Not if Georgia, Florida State and Alabama have anything to say about it.

And they likely will.

If you’re a Penn State supporter, you might point out that the program has been hamstrung a bit over the past decade by being in the same division as two national powerhouses. OK, but aren’t the Nittany Lions supposed to be elite? That’s what their fans are always saying. Again, if you’re an elite program, you should be able to defeat other elite programs every now and then.

You also might say that things will change starting in 2024 when divisions are eliminated in the Big Ten, and the conference title matchup will simply involve the top two teams in the standings. True, but who says that won’t frequently be Michigan and Ohio State in a rematch of their historic regular-season rivalry? Even if it’s not Michigan and Ohio State, what about Washington, Oregon, USC and UCLA, the four prominent programs that will be joining the conference next year? One of them figures to factor into the Big Ten championship mix sooner rather than later.

Forget Michigan and Ohio State, can Penn State even compete with the four defectors from the Pac-12?

I guess we’ll see, but who am I to talk about Penn State? I’m a Pitt fan. My program is small potatoes.

As for the Nittany Lions? I mean, they’re a national power, right? After all, that’s what their fans are always saying.

They say it on Twitter. They say it with their attendance at both home and away games.

One of these days, Penn State may even prove its national prominence by saying it in the polls.


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