What Makes a Rival? Penn State “Unrivaled”


It’s Rutgers week.  Come on Penn State fans…get fired up!  Okay, so not too many of us are going to be really fired up for this week’s opponent.  To most of us, Rutgers is just another game on the schedule that since last year is also a conference opponent.  The hate is one sided from the Scarlet Knights’ side.  The Rutgers students in particular chant unsavory things about Penn State when they play other opponents.  This got me thinking about what truly makes a rival and does Penn State have one?  Let’s examine the possibilities.

A rival in college football is an opponent that everyone associated with the program points to every year and circles on the calendar.  Beating a rival brings sheer jubilation and bragging rights. Losing to a rival brings heartache and frustration that lasts until the next time the two teams meet.  Rivalries in college football are some of the most fierce in all of sports and it’s one of the many reasons that make college football so special.

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As a football independent until 1993, Penn State traditionally had many rivals, mostly in the east.  Syracuse and Penn State had some great battles between 1950 and 1970, but Penn State dominated between 1971 and 1990 before the continuous series ended.  You may have even heard about the story of Syracuse fans once dousing the Nittany Lion shrine in orange paint during a Homecoming match-up between the two schools

Maryland, Rutgers, West Virginia and Temple had longstanding series with Penn State, but most of those games were one-sided in favor of the Nittany Lions.  Now Maryland and Rutgers are yearly conference opponents in the Big Ten.   Outside of the east, Penn State in the late 70’s through the early 90’s played some great contests with Alabama and Notre Dame.

When it comes to traditional rivals, the one that comes to mind for most Penn State fans is Pitt.  Proximity, fan interaction and on-field results really made Penn State-Pitt one of the biggest rivalries in college football.  The game had not only regional, but national implications and was always played as the last game of the regular season.  After Penn State joined the Big Ten and Pitt at the time joined the Big East, the rivalry was essentially dormant outside of a four game series from 1997-2000.  Now the schools are set to face off for four consecutive years starting in 2016.

Aug 30, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; A Pittsburgh Panthers cheerleader holds a cheer card on the field against the Delaware Fightin Blue Hens during the first quarter at Heinz Field. PITT won 62-0. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The exact cause of why the series ended is not definitively known.  Many Pitt fans blame Joe Paterno for ending it.  Other fans on both sides point to Penn State wanting an unbalanced schedule of more games at Beaver Stadium.  Whatever the true reason, it’s just added to the rivalry off the field and why so many fans are looking forward to next season’s game, myself included.

In the Big Ten, Penn State has not really had a rival.  The closest has been Ohio State, and while there have been some great games with the Buckeyes over the years, they have the biggest rivalry in the conference with Michigan and don’t think of Penn State as a rival.  The trophy games with Minnesota (Governor’s Victory Bell) and Michigan State (Land Grant Trophy) have seemed forced.   When the conference added Nebraska in 2011, the Cornhuskers were designated as Penn State’s protected division crossover game.  However, when Maryland and Rutgers joined in 2014, the divisional format was changed and Penn State won’t meet Nebraska again until 2017.

So this brings us to the point.  Who exactly is Penn State’s rival and do they even need one?  The athletic department lately has been playing up the idea and marketing campaign of “Unrivaled” and perhaps they really are without one.  For the athletic department, football scheduling comes down to having seven home games to bring in enough money to cover expenses for the other 26 varsity teams that do not turn profits.  With the Big Ten moving to nine conference games in 2016, it will make non-conference scheduling even more difficult.  It’s easier and more profitable for Penn State to schedule a non power 5 conference team to a one time game than schedule a home and home series with a power five team.

With that in mind, playing an annual series with Pitt doesn’t seem feasible from the athletic department’s point of view .  I’m going to enjoy the next four seasons playing Pitt and maybe they’ll schedule another series in the future.  But I will also enjoy playing Maryland, Rutgers, Ohio State and Michigan every year.  Rivalries happen organically and perhaps one will develop over time with these schools.

Feel free to leave comments about who you think should be Penn State’s rival.