On Saturday, my family and I took a spin up to Ann Arbor on our way to the Pirates-Tigers game that night in Detroit. I'd never been there before, so I wanted to check out the town and the Big House while I was in the area.
When we pulled up to the gate, below the scoreboard was a tour bus of Tigers fans on their way to the game that had stopped to take pictures at the stadium, too. Clad in our Pirate gear (nothing Penn State), my brother and I waited patiently for our turn.
The first Tiger fan to notice immediately remarked "Look, Pirates fans! Hey, when Penn State grows up, this is what it will look like."
Raise your hand if you'd expect to hear something along those lines from a Michigan fan. Now, ask the same question about Nebraska fans.
Call it a hunch, but I don't suspect that scene would have played much in Lincoln as Ann Arbor. You could say that's because Michigan fans tend to be elitist, but the more likely reason is that they flat don't like Penn State. Sure, they'll deny that the "rivalry" is anywhere close to Ohio State on the hate scale, but find a Michigan fan that doesn't return at least some of Penn State's animosity toward them and they're probably faking it.
In my opinion, you need three things for a rivalry:
- Hate-able figures
- Regional tension
- Significant on-field history
Penn State-Michigan has some degree of all of those things. The "hate-able figures" could begin and end at Rich Rodriguez, although there are plenty more. Regionally, State College and Ann Arbor aren't far away, causing the schools to routinely compete for recruits and the fans to mix out in the real world. Finally, on the field, both teams have regularly played tough, competitive games even during Michigan's streak of dominance over Penn State in the win column. There's a sustained history between the two schools.
Not so much between Penn State and Nebraska. Beyond Tom Osborne, it's doubtful many Penn State fans could even name let alone hate many Nebraska figures. Geographically, Nebraska and Penn State couldn't be further apart within the conference, making it difficult to find each other in heated recruiting battles or interact with each other on a regular basis. Also, save for a few competitive games sprinkled through the eons, there isn't a whole lot of on-field history there, either.
The only real points of contention between the two schools are the 1982 and 1994 national championships. Those are big events, sure, but when you ask Penn State fans to place blame for why the Nitts didn't win in '94, it more often rests at the feet of bitter Big Ten voters and Miami's performance in the 1995 Orange Bowl than any shortcoming of that Nebraska team. The Huskers can't even take all of the heat for the incident.
Nebraska is a great traditional program, and yes, there is some history with Penn State to speak of, more than most of its former Big XII brethren. However, to suggest that it will immediately rise to the level of Penn State-Ohio State, a game that has determined the winner of the last five Big Ten titles, Penn State-Michigan (as described above), or even Penn State-Iowa, a rivalry still in it's formative stages even after Iowa's recent key wins over Penn State, just seems like Penn State fans throwing themselves at the next eligible woman to walk into the room.
Remember, by the time 2011 rolls around, most Penn State freshman will have been between two and three years old in 1994. When they think of robbed national championships they think of the heart breaking defeats in Ann Arbor in 2005 and Iowa City in 2008.
A rival has to be a school the entire fan base collectively hates, and while probably a majority of Penn State fans at this point remember the pain of that fateful autumn, the defeats to Michigan in 2005 and Iowa in 2008 are more fresh in the minds of more fans, not to mention the regular games the schools have played in the last 20 years.
Down the road, Penn State fans may look back at this period and wonder how they got along without hating Nebraska. The potential of a rivalry with the Huskers is certainly titillating, and offers a chance of possibly having a true Big Ten rival for the first time since the Lions entered the conference, but right now, potential is all it has.
Penn State-Nebraska isn't a rivalry yet.