It might seem far-fetched to some of the younger readers out there, but there is an alternate timeline in which Penn State is not a member of the Big Ten. In fact, a single vote was all that kept PSU from joining such regional rivals as Pitt, Syracuse, and West Virginia in a novel idea - an all-sports Big East membership, eliminating Penn State’s independent status in football. Of course, as we all know, the Lions did not become a part of the Big East, and spent an extra 9 years as an independent - during which time they racked up not one but two consensus national championships. Finally, in 1990, Penn State was voted in as a member of the Big Ten, and in 1993, they kicked off as a member of the conference in football.
1993 - Penn State Welcomes the Big Ten . . .
In 1993, Penn State was at the forefront of the college football landscape. Joe Paterno and the Nittany Lions had won two national championships in the 80s, and had continually pumped out top 25 teams as an independent. 1993 would prove to be no different. In the inaugural Big Ten game for the Lions, #17 Penn State took on Minnesota at Beaver Stadium, and claimed the Governor’s Victory Bell with a 38-20 win. Strangely enough, Penn State’s nonconference slate included wins over both Rutgers and Maryland (the more things change, the more they stay the same) to reach 5-0 on the season, and #7 in the polls.
Unfortunately, back-to-back losses to #18 Michigan at home, and to #3 Ohio State in Columbus caused the Lions to tumble to #19 in the rankings. Penn State went on a four-game win streak to close the season, including a tight 38-37 win over #25 Michigan State to claim the Land Grant Trophy. Finally, on January 1, 1994, the team took on #6 Tennessee in the Citrus Bowl, and emerged victorious by the score of 31-13. The Lions ended the season #7 in the Coaches Poll, and #8 in the AP Poll.
1994 - . . . but the Big Ten Doesn’t Necessarily Welcome Penn State
Following a solid finish to the 1993 season, the Lions found themselves starting the season ranked #9 in the country - and immediately showed why they were worthy of such a high ranking, beating Minnesota 56-3. The 1994 season would become defined by one of the most high-powered offenses in college football history. Led by Kerry Collins, Ki-Jana Carter, and Bobby Engram, Penn State took on all takers and just. kept. scoring.
61-21 over Iowa. 55-27 over Rutgers. 63-14 over #21 Ohio State. 45-17 over Northwestern. If there was one thing that Penn State could do, it was score points. After finishing the regular season 11-0, the #2 Nittany Lions took on #12 Oregon in the Rose Bowl, and cruised to a 38-20 win, finishing the year undefeated.
Sadly, this was the era in which human polls still decided national champions, and there was a Big Red gorilla in the room - the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Nebraska, too, had finished the season undefeated, and with their win over #3 Miami in the Orange Bowl, the pollsters opted to give Tom Osborne the national championship - Penn State finished as the unanimous #2 team in the country.
This put a damper on what would be Joe Paterno’s last undefeated squad, and to this day, some people feel that the Midwestern Big Ten just wasn’t very accepting of East Coast Penn State. We’ll never know what could have happened if PSU and Nebraska had played, as the Bowl Championship Series wasn’t implemented until 1998, so many Penn State fans simply have to hang on to the what-ifs.
1995 - The Lions Rebound
Despite the heartbreak of the 1994 season finale, Penn State again found itself ranked in the top 10 to start a football season - this time debuting at #4. The early season was an up-and-down affair, as the Lions struggled to defeat Texas Tech, followed by a throttling of Temple and Rutgers, before back-to-back losses to Wisconsin and #5 Ohio State. PSU tumbled to #20 in the country before righting the ship with a 26-23 win over Purdue after a 12:30 kickoff - the more things change, the more they stay the same.
3 weeks later, however, #6 Northwestern (checks record books . . . yep, that’s actually correct) defeated the Nittany Lions 21-10 in Evanston. Penn State would finish the regular season with wins over #12 Michigan, and Michigan State. Finally, on January 1, 1996, PSU took on #16 Auburn in the Outback Bowl, and emerged victorious with a 43-14 win. The team ended the year #12 in the Coaches Poll, and #13 in the AP Poll.
1996 - A Common Theme Emerges
Another year, another top 25 debut for Penn State - this time at #11, and a season-opener versus #7 USC. The Lions would rattle off five straight wins, climbing to #4 in the country - only to lose to Ohio State, 38-7 in the Horseshoe. So, for what it’s worth, young Penn State fans, Ohio State has been a difficult foe for far longer than just the Urban Meyer or Jim Tressel years.
The Lions split games against Purdue and Iowa before finishing their season with wins over Indiana, #11 Northwestern (again, I did fact-check this, that ranking is correct), #16 Michigan, and Michigan State. Once more Penn State found itself in a New Year’s bowl, this time against #20 Texas in the Fiesta Bowl . . . and once more, Penn State cruised to an easy win, defeating the Longhorns 38-15. They ended the year as the unanimous #7 team in the land.
1997 - Penn State Exorcises Some Demons, Succumbs to Others
For the first time since joining the Big Ten, Penn State began the season ranked #1 in the country. Aptly enough, the Lions took on Pitt and came away with a 34-17 victory, followed by wins over Temple and Louisville. The Louisville victory is notable for the fact that Penn State defeated the Cardinals 57-21 - and dropped to #2 in the country. There may have been some consternation over how the BCS was run - but if a team like Alabama beat a team by 36 points and dropped a spot in the rankings, there’d be rioting in Tuscaloosa.
In any case, PSU responded by decimating Illinois 41-6, and took down pesky #7 Ohio State 31-27 to reclaim the #1 spot. Unfortunately, #4 Michigan came to town a couple weeks later, and lambasted the Lions 34-8. Penn State rattled off a pair of wins over top 25 Purdue and Wisconsin, but lost to Michigan State for the first time as a member of the Big Ten to close the season. Perhaps fittingly for such an odd season, Penn State again played in a January 1st bowl game, but this time lost 21-6 to #6 Florida in the Citrus Bowl. At the end of their fifth year in the conference, the Lions found themselves #17 in the Coaches Poll, and #16 in the AP Poll.
Overall, the first five years in the Big Ten were a smashing success - with more than a hint of what-could-have-been. The Lions finished their first 5 years with a 51-10 overall record, including a 35-9 conference record. Penn State went to five straight New Year’s bowl games, where they went 4-1. Their average finish in the polls over that span was #9 in the country. If you asked any current Penn State fan if they would like to finish in the top 10 for the next 4 years, they would leap at the opportunity.
They may, however, pause if you told them that they’d finish as the runner up for the national championship one time in the next 4 years. They may even take a minute to think it over if you told them that they’d start one year at #1 in the country, only to finish the season #17 overall. The awe-inspiring 1994 campaign will always ring just a tad hollow for the Nittany Lion faithful, as well as the apparent lukewarm welcome by the Midwestern conference, not to mention the strong start to the 1997 season, which quickly unraveled as the season went on. For better or for worse, the Lions were part of the Big Ten - and had staked a claim as one of the top teams in the conference - though they were not without their fair share of bumps and bruises.