clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Who is Penn State's Rival?

We still don't really know. Let's try to use science to help!

Is Pitt truly Penn State's rival?
Is Pitt truly Penn State's rival?
Rick Stewart/Getty Images

The word rival is tossed about a lot in sports, and in college football specifically it seems that certain teams value their attachment to a rivalry as a badge of honor. OSU-Michigan, Alabama-Auburn, Oklahoma-Texas…if you are a fan of one of these schools, you know that you definitely have a rival. In other parts of the country, rivalries are less important, and teams/players/fans simply concentrate on each individual game.

But what about Penn State? They lack a traditional rival in the sense that the above match-ups have historical significance. If Penn State continued playing Pitt every year, it’s probable they would qualify, but since Penn State-Pitt hasn’t happened for 15 years, it’s tough to argue it carries the same weight as Duke-UNC. Additionally, Penn State fans (at least the ones interested in engaging in the rival discussion) fight the "Rival? Really?" fight on two fronts: saying you consider a clearly superior team (Ohio State) warrants minimal reaction from their fan base, who probably doesn’t agree with the classification, and similarly when a clearly inferior team (Rutgers) claims Penn State as a rival, our fan base lets out a collective yawn.

Webster’s Dictionary defines rival as a person or thing competing with another for the same objective or for superiority in the same field of activity. In the activity of college football, that definition offers zero help in determining what teams are rivals. So we’ve created four categories of our own: 1) geography, 2) recruiting, 3) on-field product, and 4) fan interaction.

So who is Penn State’s rival, if anyone? The need to identify a rival at all aside, we scored each team below in the four categories in an effort to determine, for good and all, who Penn State can truly claim as a rival (NOTE: We understand that a rival remains an entirely subjective thing, so please continue to consider Iowa (Daniel FU**ING Murray) or Ohio a rival of Penn State). The scores below each team’s analysis in each subsection are between 1 and 10, with 1 being absolutely not a rival (Alabama and North Dakota State University) and 10 being a true rival (Lakers-Celtics in the 80’s).


There are ten Power 5 schools within roughly 250 miles, or roughly an 8-9 hour drive, of University Park, PA. Any further, and it gets pretty hard to travel en masse to a sporting event, and thus makes it difficult to consider an opposing team a rival. Those ten are (from closest to furthest away): Pitt, West Virginia, Maryland, Rutgers, Ohio State, Syracuse, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Michigan, and Boston College.

Of these ten, we’re going to focus on just five, because we’re lazy and because no one has ever really argued that WVU, Syracuse, Virginia, VT, or BC are rivals of Penn State. Thus, the following teams will be analyzed for their potential rival-ness: Ohio State, Pitt, Maryland, Rutgers, and Michigan.


Here, we’re going to define rivals as two teams who regularly face each other for the talents of top athletes. We analyzed the data from the last five official recruiting years (any further back and the data were unreliable; 2016 was omitted because it’s still ongoing) and determined what level of success Penn State realized when going head-to- head for top recruits. That includes the classes signed in 2011-2015.

It’s difficult to analyze this category objectively. The numbers will tell one story, but anyone that has ever followed recruiting knows that real-life sometimes tells another story. An athlete may have offers from both schools, but for whatever reason School A or School B was never really in the picture. That said, since going through each player that qualifies in this section is an exercise in futility, we relied on the black-and-white numbers below. Feel free to debate why these numbers should fluctuate.

The numbers shown below represent Penn State’s percentage of recruits "won" when a recruit had offers from both schools and picked one of those schools.

School 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015
Ohio State 20% 0% 25% 33% 50%
Pitt 100% 57% 60% 78% 94%
Maryland 100% 75% 89% 82% 92%
Rutgers 83% 46% 88% 91% 93%
Michigan 75% 0% 25% 20% 67%

Tressel/Fickel/Meyer have gone up against Paterno/O’Brien/Franklin 44 times in the past five years, with Penn State having an overall success rate of 14/42 (.333). Those numbers have been trending up in the past three years, though, as Franklin finished an even 8/16 (.500) against Meyer in last year’s class. An even 50/50 split is what you’d expect of an opponent on your level.

Ohio State Rival Score: 8

Penn State’s success against Pitt on the recruiting front hit a five-year low in 2012, but has trended back up to pre-scandal levels in the subsequent three years. Overall, Penn State is 36/44 (.818). The lone player from 2015 with offers from both schools to select Pitt over Penn State was Jordan Whitehead, a fact that no Pitt fan will ever let you forget, ever. Even with two years of traditionally rival results in the past five years, the overall number and most recent numbers suggest something different.

Pittsburgh Rival Score: 3

Like Pitt, Maryland couldn’t even overcome the 50% success rate in Penn State football’s lowest time. Penn State has never done worse than 75% success against Maryland in the past five years, with a cumulative result of 36/41 (.878). And also like Pitt, James Franklin only missed on one of twelve players last year, except that he didn’t initially. Adam McLean committed to Penn State first, and then flipped to Maryland.

Maryland Rival Score: 2

The Scarlet Knights were able to tip the scales in their favor in 2012, but that is the bright spot on their line above. At no other time did Penn State’s success fall below 83%. Overall, Penn State has faced Big Ten Powerhouse Rutgers a surprisingly high number of times (52), which probably speaks more to the oddly talent rich state of New Jersey than anything, and has "won" 41 of those battles (.788).

Rutgers Rival Score: 2

The combo with the lowest amount of common recruits, Michigan and Penn State have only gone after 28 players in the past five years, and Penn State has secured commitments from 10 of them (.357). That said, Penn State’s success rate took a big step forward when James Franklin came aboard and had a full year to work with. Last year, Penn State went 4/6 (.667), losing out on Tyrone Wheatley, Jr. (a Michigan legacy whose dad is the Michigan running backs coach [see the aforementioned "other factors" discussion above]) and Grant Newsome.

Michigan Rival Score: 7

On-Field Product

This is not going to be a long, drawn-out section about history and what happened before the Great War. The table below shows the entire history of Penn State’s actual success against these five teams, and we’re not going to go any deeper into ancient history than that. Since we used a recency analysis above, we’ll use it again to show recent success (or lack thereof). However, Penn State hasn’t played one of these teams (Pitt) in 15 years, and has only played two of these teams (Rutgers and Maryland) once in the past 15 years. So for "recent" success, we’re going to look at the last five meetings between the teams.

Unlike recruiting, the actual numbers are more indicative of a rival. While certain games might be able to be explained away or looked at questionably, the official records still give Ohio State a victory over Penn State in 2014. Consequently, determining the Rival Score for this section is fairly straightforward.

School All-Time Recent
Ohio State

























Ohio State has pretty much owned Penn State as of late, and has had their number historically as well. With only one recent win (against a 6-7 OSU team in 2011), Penn State has been outscored 181-95 over the past five meetings.

Ohio State Rival Score: 3

The closest to a traditional rival on the field (with a large enough sample size), the .537 success against Pitt suggests a rival. Recent meetings (1992, 1997-2000) suggest otherwise. However, no Pitt fan will let you forget their 12-0 victory in the last meeting.

Pittsburgh Rival Score: 8

Only one team (Indiana) has a worse historical winning percentage against Penn State (sample size > 10 games) than Maryland. That said, and despite "recent" success, last year happened, and Maryland beat Penn State by one point.

Maryland Rival Score: 2

If Maryland has a Rival Score of 2 (solely due to last year’s victory), then this one is no contest. Rutgers hasn’t beaten Penn State in nearly 30 years, and has only two wins in 25 tries.

Rutgers Rival Score: 1

Michigan is a weird one to analyze here; had this article been written five years ago, Penn State would be coming off a nine-game losing streak. Then, they went on a four- game winning streak and lost a nail biter last year 18-13. Neither history nor recency suggest a rivalry, but since one team can lay claim to each (history and recency), it’s closer.

Michigan Rival Score: 5

Fan Interaction

(Ed Note-The views expressed here are Junny's, and Junny's alone. Everyone feels differently about other websites and other people on the internet of every fan base. There are a lot of excellent people who write for all of the sites mentioned in this portion of the piece, including friends of Black Shoe Diaries such as Pete Volk of Testudo Times and Seth Fisher of MGoBlog and We Are!- NP)

Geography and actual football-related things make up the bulk of the equation, but what good is a rivalry if you can’t rub it in someone’s face when your team wins? This was sort of a catchall category, and is entirely based upon our subjective view of the interaction between fanbases. This can be in person (which will skew more to the closer geographic teams) or online. The in-person analysis will also take into consideration the interaction of opposing fans when visiting Penn State (or when Penn Staters visit them). This category carries the least weight in the rivalry equation because of its high subjectivity (one person may have a great interaction with an Ohio State fan, while another may have only had terrible interactions), and seeing as how this is being posted to an online forum, there will surely be great examples forthcoming of fan-base interaction.

Living in Pittsburgh provides ample opportunity to interact with Ohio State fans in person on a fairly regular basis, and the results have been mixed. Some fans are great, and discussions about football are actually productive. Some are insufferable shit-heels, who continue to make one question their faith in humanity. Similarly, their online presence consists of some real good eggs (including a couple that will probably show up in the comments below) and arrogant, self-absorbed, egoists who sit perched high atop their highest of horses. Related, though, that’s how many other fans describe the Penn State fan-base, so maybe we’re not that different.

Ohio State Rival Score: 8

Similar to Ohio State, proximity to Pitt affords a level of interaction with Pitt fans that many other non-western PA Penn State fans get, on a daily basis at least. That said, Pitt fans seemingly make up a smaller portion of fans in the region (compared with Penn State and Ohio State). Unlike Ohio State, though, finding a Pitt fan with which to have a live, rational discussion is quite difficult. Online, Pitt is a dichotomy wrapped in a riddle. Sane, albeit slightly-unrealistic, fans exist, ones who have a balanced view of the state of the program in Oakland. On the flip side, #PittTwitter is absolute hilarity embodied. An analysis of Pitt’s fan base online could take months, and would probably serve as fodder for numerous scholarly psychiatric articles.

Pittsburgh Rival Score: 7

Have you been to Testudo Times? The mere mention of Penn State begets a 500 comment thread that ends in all manner of insanity (mostly with the help of one specific person). They are crazy and insufferable and yet no one can look away. A trip to College Park for a college football game is a recommendation no one should take, but interaction with them in person also tends to be mixed, with the rare good apple thrown into the mix of sheer lunacy. But for some reason, Penn State fans continue to egg them on, and want to stay involved with their special brand of crazy.

Maryland Rival Score: 7

Oh, Rutgers. Poor, feeble Rutgers. Like Pitt and Maryland, your fan base is holding onto some antiquated notion of success, based either in 2006 or days when college football was played without face masks. "Just wait" or "If they all stay home" continue to be rallying cries, but they never pan out and the fan base turns even more annoying the next year. They are a rival in this category in the same way that people and ants are rivals for a picnic cupcake - annoying, and easily dealt with, but kind of a pest anyway.

Rutgers Rival Score: 2

Maybe it’s a common trait of the Big Ten, but Michigan tends to get an elitist, holier-than- thou reputation among other fan bases. And for some of their fans, that is an entirely accurate assessment (as it is with fans of Ohio State, Penn State, etc.). But they also have some friendly people in Ann Arbor, a town that is more like State College than the some of the other Big Ten cities. Their online presence seems sane until you visit the den of misery that is mGoblog. There is probably one commenter over there that is based in reality, but he has yet to be identified.

Michigan Rivals Score: 5


As expected, the numbers bear out what most people think: the closest Penn State has to a true rival lives in Pittsburgh or Columbus. Surprisingly, Michigan ranks on the end of a rival. They don’t pass the feel test of a rival, but Penn State and Michigan have battled consistently for recruits and wins, and their fans seem to be very similar to Penn State fans.

School Recruiting (40%) On-Field (40%) Fans (20%) Total
Ohio State 8 3 8 6
Pitt 3 8 7 5.8
Maryland 2 2 7 3
Rutgers 2 1 2 1.6
Michigan 7 5 5 5.8

Now, keep in mind that this is an analysis of who Penn State should consider a rival. Like alluded to in the introduction, the other fanbases may look at this and think LOLRIVALNO (Ohio State fan base) or OHIJUSTHATEPEDSTATESOMUCH (Rutgers fan base). Also, many of these teams already have traditional rivals: Ohio State has Michigan, Rutgers continually battles common sense and decency, Maryland struggles every year with abject failure, and Pitt…well, Pitt’s demons are well documented at this point.

Luckily, starting next year, Penn State will play each of these teams every year for four years. Hopefully there will be some discussion about each game.

(Ed Note- Leave a comment letting us know if you agree or disagree with any of this. Let us know who YOU think Penn State's true rival is, and why. -NP)