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BSD Roundtable: Penn State’s Protected Big Ten Opponents

Surprisingly, Indiana and Northwestern were not picked.

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Arizona State v USC Photo by Jonathan Moore/Getty Images

With USC and UCLA scheduled to join the Big Ten in 2024, it will mean the conference will likely switch from its current two-division system to a one-division system. How the one-division system will exactly work remains to be seen, but it’s believed that the Big Ten will continue to have nine in-conference games, with each program having three “protected” opponents that it would play every season. The other 12 programs would then switch between off between seasons, meaning that every Big Ten school would play one another at least twice during a four-year period.

Totally not convoluted, right?

Regardless, the idea of Penn State having three protected games intrigued those of us at BSD — since, you know, we don’t have any real rivals. So we got together for a roundtable, and made predictions on who we think the Nittany Lions will get for those protected matchups. Not who we want or hope is protected, but what we think will happen.

Chris: Michigan State, Maryland, and Rutgers

Okay so I’m answering this two ways: first, who I WANT to be the protected teams, and second, who I think will be the ACTUAL teams.

So first, for who I want. I’ll take Ohio State, Iowa, and USC, a combo of East, Midwest, West. First, OSU, because they’re the best, and if Penn State beats them, they become the best. Second, Iowa, because I like the idea of filling in with a more midwestern team, and of all the midwestern teams, my hatred of Iowa runs deepest. Lastly, USC, because hoo boy that’s a beautiful matchup of uniforms, and I generally consider USC to be the better football school of the two SoCal teams.

Second, for who I think it will be. I’d love two of OSU-UM-MSU, but I don’t think it will be Michigan - the Wolverines are likely locked in with OSU and MSU. I’m not certain that OSU would agree to playing UM and PSU every year either, so I’m thinking OSU may be off the table. Similarly, I don’t know that PSU would want to sign up for playing two of the toughest teams every year either, so I guess that leaves us with MSU as one of the teams.

My biggest fear is Penn State gets saddled with both Rutgers and Maryland, but geographically, I’m not sure who else those two teams would play (aside from each other). There’s a very real chance PSU gets both, which, bleh. But I think there’s a very realistic chance that the Lions get MSU-MD-RU as their three teams every year.

I do think there’s an outside shot that PSU splits one of RU/MD, and then looks at one of the newcomers, as a sort of cross-country blue-blood thing. But we all heard the complaints about teams having to travel cross-country for games now, and I think regional games may take more precedence. So yeah... Michigan State, Maryland, Rutgers is my guess.

Jared: Ohio State, Michigan, and Nebraska

The first two are obvious picks. Ohio State and Michigan are the two games that pop off the schedule each year, bringing the fanbase loads of excitement and memorable moments each year. They are also typically the most impactful on the season and bring in the most attention from college football fans who do not watch the Nittany Lions on a regular basis.

The third one required some thought. I went with Nebraska because it felt like an organic rivalry was brewing after the two teams faced off in three consecutive years after the ‘Huskers joined the Big Ten. While all three were (technically - Matt Lehamn reached the end zone in 2011) Nebraska victories, we witnessed three incredibly close and hard fought contests. If Penn State and Nebraska had continued playing annually - or at least more than twice in the past decade - it could have developed into something much more meaningful than just another game against a Big Ten West opponent. I don’t expect the ‘Huskers to ever reach the dominance experienced in past decades, the program should become far more competitive under Matt Rhule, who interestingly enough, is a former Penn State linebacker.

I’ll also side with Chris - we should all brace ourselves for either Rutgers or Maryland to be one of the protected crossover games. Just please not both.

Eli: Ohio State, Michigan State, and Maryland

The stated reason for adding Rutgers and Maryland, back when they did, was to give Penn State some “natural rivals.” The other reasons, of course, were TV money. But, putting that latter reason aside, I expect the Big Ten to put Penn State with at least one of the two easternmost schools in the conference.

All that said, pairing the Lions with both of those schools would create the kind of schedule imbalance that we’re trying to get away from in the first place — Michigan is locked in with Ohio State and Michigan State, for example. As a result, I think Penn State will get:

Ohio State
Michigan State
Maryland OR Rutgers

The first two are actually pretty straightforward. Group Michigan/Michigan State/Ohio State/Penn State together, each team playing two from the group, to create balance. Penn State has played Michigan State and Ohio State every year, with the exception of the Legends and Leaders seasons, when Michigan State was in the other division. This prevents Michigan State, Ohio State, and Penn State, from getting too easy a draw, as Michigan is guaranteed to have both of its main rivals on the schedule every year. Fully expanded out, it looks like this:

Michigan: Michigan State, Ohio State
Michigan State: Michigan, Penn State
Ohio State: Penn State, Michigan
Penn State: Ohio State, Michigan State

The third team for each of those, then, becomes a combination of the easier teams available. Because Maryland has actually been competitive with Penn State as Big Ten members, relatively speaking (and by relative, I mean “has actually beaten Penn State, like, at all”), I’m thinking they’re the ones.

Tim: Ohio State, Michigan State, and Maryland

Taking into account geography, competitive balance, and historic rivalries with awesome trophies, I see the three protected games being:

1. Ohio State - Penn State has played the Buckeyes every single year since they began Big Ten play 30 years ago. I don’t care that they’ve only won once in the last decade, it just wouldn’t feel right for OSU to ever go off the schedule rotation. This is the game PSU fans circle on their calendars every year.

2. Maryland - Mostly for selfish reasons, because I live in Terrapin country (about a half-hour from College Park). Not to mention, PSU recruits heavily in the DMV area, which is also where Maryland does the bulk of their recruiting. Plus, I can’t see the B1G powers that be allowing the Terps to get off the hook that easily by avoiding going up against one of the (soon-to-be-former) beasts from the B1G East on an annual basis.

3. Michigan State - Folks, it’s the Land Grant Trophy game. How can you not play every year for that beautiful monstrosity of a trophy that looks like it was designed by a 6th-grade wood shop student?

Marty: Iowa, Maryland, and Michigan State

I have a very hard time envisioning both Ohio State and Michigan being protected games for Penn State. First off, The Game will obviously be a protected rivalry. There is also a good chance Michigan/Michigan State is as well. The Big Ten, I would think at least, will not want Ohio State, Michigan, and Penn State bludgeoning each other each season limiting the conference’s ability to get multiple three teams into the expanded College Football Playoff.

I am confident that Maryland will be one of Penn State’s protected games. That’s a stone cold lock. Five star lock. Lock it up. I will be VERY surprised if that is not the case. I would not be surprised to see one of the newcomers from the West Coast get locked in with Penn State either. That would be a big money ticket type of game for the Big Ten, although they would have some logistical issues to figure out there. If it’s not one of the West Coast schools, then I think the majestic Land Grant Trophy could live on yearly. The Big Ten also seems to love seeing Penn State play Iowa, so the Hawkeyes are likely in the mix as well.

Bennett: Ohio State, USC, and Maryland

I think it’s important to remember this is television driven - I have to stop and keep reminding myself of that. So, here goes…

Ohio State will hardly view Penn State as a rival and certainly nowhere in the same stratosphere as Michigan. But thirty years of being a “big game” matters. And the ratings matter. Penn State/Ohio State remains a yearly endeavor as it has been since 1993.

With what I just said about TV driving things, I do think that geography forces this one: Penn State can’t avoid both of the other eastern most schools. So I went with Maryland - but this is a flip of the coin.

USC - again, thinking TV. USC is going to be paired with UCLA and I think Ohio State for certain. So, who else goes against USC? Either Michigan or Penn State - both are good fits. I think we have a few more eyeballs from coast to coast that CBS/NBC/FOX covet. That makes the difference.

Patrick: USC, Iowa, and Maryland

I’ll keep this simple. The Big Ten wants to do to two things:

  1. Make a lot of money. (Very important)
  2. Get as many team to the College Football Playoff as possible (very important too, largely because that means more money)

With those as the two main directives, it’s a delicate balancing act to make sure the Big Ten is putting out a top-tier product each week during the regular season while not having your conference beat up on each other to the point you are costing yourself playoff spots. Granted, the expansion to 12 teams does give you a lot more wiggle room, so maybe we do see Penn State play two of USC, Ohio State, and Michigan like Bennett and Jared predicted above?

While I wouldn’t be shocked if the Big Ten just decided to super-stack the regular season, I’ll go with the happy medium of USC, Iowa, and Maryland. Let’s start from the bottom and work our way up.

  • Maryland: I went with Maryland over Rutgers because I think they’ll give Rutgers to Michigan instead. This is completely anecdotal, but when I worked in New York City, Michigan (after Penn State) seemed like the most represented college in my office. So there you go #data
  • Iowa: If we want to stick with one of these fake Big Ten rivalries, I think Iowa makes more sense than Michigan State or Nebraska. Way better games, and after 2021, there’s some legitimate animosity between the fan bases. The Hawkeyes will almost certainly be the White Out game in 2023, becoming only the third program to get the White Out experience more than once.
  • USC: Ohio State-Michigan is going to be protected, as it should be. That leaves USC and Penn State — in my opinion, the two other power programs — as fitting dance partners. The Trojans didn’t join the Big Ten to skip out on an annual game with one of Ohio State, Michigan, and Penn State. The Nittany Lions make the most sense here.