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Take Two: Penn State's Big Ten rival

7/9/2014

Our crew of Big Ten reporters will occasionally give their takes on a burning question facing the league. They'll have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which one is right.

Rutgers and Maryland have officially been Big Ten members for a week now, and that brings about an interesting dynamic with Penn State's conference slate. In past years, the Nittany Lions' primary conference rival was Ohio State. So today's Take Two topic: Who exactly is the Nittany Lions' main conference rival right now?

Take 1: Adam Rittenberg

The debate about Penn State's top Big Ten rival isn't a new one and hasn't produced an obvious answer. It goes along with the sentiment of some Nittany Lions fans that the school never has been fully integrated into the Big Ten. The league's expansion with Rutgers and Maryland took place in part because of Penn State, which became vulnerable after the ACC added both Pitt and Syracuse. The additions ensure Penn State is no longer a geographic outlier and provide PSU fans with two convenient road destinations.

But rivalries don't spawn merely out of convenience. They're fueled by competitiveness, too. Unless Maryland and Rutgers move up in class, or Penn State moves down in class, I don't see a true rivalry developing. Penn State is 35-1-1 all-time against Maryland and 22-2 all-time against Rutgers. The Terrapins or Scarlet Knights need to beat Penn State sometime in the next three years for any real rivalry to develop. They will compete a lot on the recruiting trail, especially with James Franklin's ties to Maryland and Washington D.C. Franklin's bluster about dominating the region won't sit well in either neighboring state. Yet again, it comes down to winning games on the field.

I still think Penn State's biggest league rival is Ohio State. Sure, Ohio State always will have Michigan and might not cross paths as much with Penn State on the recruiting trail as Maryland or Rutgers will. But the two teams are on more equal footing and have played many more memorable games in recent years. Penn State is 3-6 against Ohio State since 2005, the best record of any Big Ten team against the Buckeyes during the span and far better than Ohio State's chief rival, Michigan, has fared. The Lions scored wins at Ohio Stadium in both 2008 and 2011 -- the Buckeyes have lost only two other Big Ten home games since the 2004 season.

There might not be a Terrelle Pryor to stir the pot, but Ohio State and Penn State undoubtedly will compete for more elite prospects as long as Franklin and Urban Meyer are coaching the teams. Plus, longtime Lions assistant Larry Johnson moved to the Buckeyes staff in the offseason after being passed over again for the top job at PSU.

Is the PSU-OSU rivalry ideal? No. It might take some time for Penn State to match Ohio State's talent and depth again, but I like the ingredients here more than the likely lopsided series with either Maryland or Rutgers.

Take 2: Josh Moyer

You make some fair points, Adam, especially about the need for competition. Penn State’s last head coach, Bill O’Brien, said as much last October: “In order to have a rivalry, you have to win,” he said. I agree. Of course, you point to the Nittany Lions being competitive with Ohio State -- and that’s where we start to diverge. The Buckeyes have taken four of the last five matchups, including handing Penn State its worst loss in 114 years last season. So, how many Big Ten fans are really expecting the Nittany Lions to win this year? Fewer, I imagine, than in those Rutgers and Maryland contests. I know I’m not the only person who feels that way about OSU. Here’s the rest of that O’Brien quote, one that came days after that 63-14 thumping: “We’ve lost two years in a row to [Ohio State]. They have one rival, Michigan, and that’s the way it goes.”

Staying competitive goes a long way in maintaining a rivalry, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only ingredient in creating one. And that’s why I think Maryland and Rutgers are Penn State’s new main rivals. Franklin threw down the gauntlet two months ago when he talked about dominating New Jersey and Maryland in recruiting and said, in hyperbolic fashion, “They might as well shut them down because they don’t have a chance.” Countered Randy Edsall: “Talk is cheap.” You can bet the Terrapins and the Scarlet Knights aren’t going to forget about that slight. This is the stuff rivalries are made of. How many Penn State fans forgot about that 2012 slight from Illinois, right after Tim Beckman tried to poach players? Schadenfreude was a real thing when PSU beat up on the Fighting Illini that season.

But, even without all that, you still have the geography factor. The campuses of Rutgers and Maryland are actually closer to some Lions fans than Penn State’s actual campus. Live in York, Pa.? UMD is a closer drive by about 30 minutes. Staying in Philadelphia? RU is two hours closer. Ask any Penn State fan whom their top rival is, and I bet most would still say Pittsburgh (Exhibit A). That proximity means something. And I think that sentiment about Pitt shows that meeting recently isn’t a prerequisite to being rivals.

Sure, a lot’s left to be written here. But Maryland-Penn State and Rutgers-Penn State are both budding rivalries. They’re on their way up; Rutgers is already planning to set up an auxiliary press box for PSU’s visit because of the demand. Ohio State-Penn State? Maybe in the longer term, Adam, that can return to something great. But that matchup is on its way down. So let the new rivalries begin.