Penn State Football makes smart decisions with future opponents announced

Penn State Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin (Mandatory Credit: Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports)
Penn State Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin (Mandatory Credit: Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports) /

As is tradition with college football to schedule out opponents five years in advance, Penn State Football tweeted out future non-conference opponents on Thursday

Penn State Football’s official twitter account tweeted out Thursday the program had finalized future non-conference dates and opponents for the year 2024 and 2026.

On September 21st, 2024 the Nittany Lions will host Ken State, a familiar MAC opponent. in September of 2026, Penn State Football finalized the last two open dates on their schedule with home games against Marshall and San Jose State.

The game with Marshall is interesting, as it will be a homecoming for former Penn State Football assistant Charles Huff, who was hired by the Thundering Herd in January. The matchup with San Jose State is a rebooking of a game that was supposed to take place in 2020 but was cancelled when the Big Ten conference went to a conference only schedule.

The announcements were not met with the most glee from Penn State Football fans on twitter, as some feel this is a “pathetic” slate of games to announce and play. This feeling is especially so for the 2026 schedule, as Penn State Football is set to play Marshall, at Temple and San Jose State that season.

It is understandable that season ticket holders may have a hard time being excited about hosting group of five schools for the money they pay, however, the program has itself to look out for, and the schedule should be made with the ultimate goal of making the Playoff and winning a national championship in mind.

The Nittany Lions will be starting a very intriguing set of home-and-homes in 2021, as they will host the Auburn Tigers and then travel to Jordan-Hare stadium in 2022. In 2023-’24 they will begin a home and home series with West Virginia, while 2020 should have seen head coach James Franklin’s squad travel to Blacksburg for a date with the Hokies. That home and home has been cancelled and will likely result in a single neutral site game.

When you take a closer look at the team’s 2021 schedule, it may be the toughest in Franklin’s tenure thus far.

Auburn will be by far their best non-conference opponent since he arrived in Happy Valley, but the ’21 season is also an “away” year for the Big Ten East teams, meaning the eastern teams will play three of their conference crossover games on the road, and only one at home. Penn State Football drew the short straw next season, having to travel to Wisconsin and Iowa, potentially the two best teams in the west.

Mixed with a trip to Columbus Halloween weekend, and homes games with Michigan and Indiana, the Nittany Lions will bolster one of the better strength of schedule arguments in the country. However, the reality of college football in a four team playoff era is, SOS makes little to no difference on who does or does not make the playoffs.

The reality for Penn State Football, and mostly harsh reality, is that every season in this current format will go directly through Ohio State. If they can not beat Ohio State, win the east and get to Indianapolis to win the Big Ten championship, they will not make the playoffs.

The chances of getting two Big Ten teams into the Playoff are slim to none, as only once in the playoff era has a conference has two teams selected to the playoffs,  2017 when Alabama and Georgia made it. The difference being, those two did not meet in the regular season that year and play in difference divisions within the SEC.

Penn State Football’s best shot to make the Playoff came in 2016 when they were a two-loss Big Ten champ but ultimately finished fifth in the final rankings. That season they had two top 10 wins, taking down the Buckeyes at home and beating Wisconsin in the B10 final. The Nittany Lions did not make the playoffs that year because of a blowout at the hands of Michigan, and a loss at Pittsburgh in a non-conference game.

The Washington Huskies however did make the College Football Playoff that year, finishing 4th, one spot ahead of Franklin’s bunch as a one-loss Pac 12 champion. That season, Washington played a gauntlet of a non-conference schedule, hosting Rutgers, Idaho and Portland State, two of which of those teams,  Idaho and Portland State, are FCS schools.

The clear distinction between the two was the difference of one loss, which came in a game Penn State Football didn’t even need to be playing, as the Lions lost a heart breaker 42-39 at Heinz Field that season.

If Penn State Football had played Villanova, like they are in 2021, or Kent State like in 2024, the Nittany Lions presumably handle business and go on to be an one-loss Big Ten champion and would have taken on Alabama in the Peach Bowl that season in a College Football Playoff semi-final.

Yes, Penn State Football could have just handled their business and beat a mediocre Pittsburgh team. However, that was an emotional game, a rivalry game in which Pitt treats like a massive event. The Nittany Lions have everything to lose in that type of game, and very little to gain. The strength of schedule, or lack thereof, did not hurt Washington, because in this four team format, you must be a zero or one-lose conference champion, and that is really all that matters.

There are examples of this in recent seasons that do not include Penn State Football. IN 2019, Oregon opened the season in a neutral site game with Auburn at Jerry World. It was a prime time event, Oregon eventually lost in the waning seconds. They than ran the table until stumbling in a road trip to Arizona State in November, handing them their second loss of the season.

The Ducks would go on to run Utah out of the building in the Pac 12 championship game, securing a spot in the Rose Bowl. It was a good season, but what if Oregon would have played Stony Brook? who they will play in week 3 of 2021. The Ducks would have been a final four team and instead of a Rose Bowl, would have been playing in a semi final game. They risked everything in week one, and would have gained virtually nothing with a win.

Fans are going to complain about future dates with potentially lackluster opponents, however these non-conference dates should be mostly looked at as games where the school and program make money, and win games.

Matchups with Auburn, West Virginia and Va. Tech are great for the sport, make for great television and are fun trips for alumni, however are not practical in putting yourself in the best position to make the playoffs.

This is smart future planning by the Nittany Lions.