It feels almost anti-climactic, like Penn State is playing the college equivalent of a series of NFL preseason games as its non-conference schedule.
For the next couple years, the Nittany Lions, much like the rest of the Big Ten, will have the same formula to their schedule — one matchup with a Power Five school and a pair of games with the lower tier of FBS (if the fans are even that lucky).
Although it brought some fumes between the two programs, the Pitt clash never appeared out of Penn State’s control and was part of the team’s AP ranking drop to No. 5, while teams in their vicinity jumped or stayed ahead of the Nittany Lions because their respective wins came against Top 25 teams.
Penn State chooses the games it plays years ahead of time (the Nittany Lions already have games scheduled as far ahead as 2025), but the connection to Georgia State is a relatively recent one that resulted in this game.
“Shawn Elliott is the head coach, who I’ve known for a number of years and have a lot of respect for,” James Franklin said. “A few years ago we did a camp at Georgia State. Had a conversation with [then-head coach Trent Miles]. They were interested [in a game]; we were interested. I came back and gave it to the administration and then they kind of looked into the specifics and the details.”
The satellite camp, when the Nittany Lions partnered with the Panthers to bypass NCAA rules, happened three years ago in Atlanta.
“The way the rules are set up, you’re not allowed to have any camp outside of your state, unless you’re on the border and within a 50-mile radius. And a lot of people recruit in Atlanta,” Miles said in 2014. “But you can legally work somebody else’s camp.”
Miles noted that bringing in a big school benefited his side, but it also plays out well for Penn State since coaches have a chance to connect with players from SEC country. There are four current Nittany Lions from the Peach State, including three players who signed in the past two years, most notably Ray Guy National Punter of the Year watch lister Blake Gillikin.
There’s the connection to the school, but that isn’t the only thing bringing the Panthers to Beaver Stadium on Saturday.
Penn State will pay Georgia State $1.2 million for the game, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. This isn’t a much different figure than you’d see in these other uneven clashes in the non-conference slate. More than $150 million will be divvied out by different marquee college football programs by the end of the season, according to USA Today.
James Franklin isn’t the final decision maker to play these type of games, but he said he plays a role in the process.
“I have strong feelings about scheduling. It’s something that me and [Athletic Director Sandy Barbour] spend a lot of time talking about and discussing,” Franklin said. “I think the most important thing you can do year-in and year-out is schedule in a way that’s going to give your team the best chance to win your conference, and then everything else will take care of it from there.”
So what exactly does scheduling “in a way that’s going to give your team the best chance to win your conference” mean?
Franklin wasn’t really direct about that, mentioning matchups, travel, and physicality before hitting the nail on the head from an administration standpoint of why the team schedules the way it does.
“I think a lot of it deals with, you’re talking about a home for home; are you talking about a neutral site game?” Franklin said. “All these different things kind of factor into it.”
Without getting into the neutral site debate, which Penn State hasn’t scheduled since the Big Ten moved to nine-game seasons, the scheduling conflict essentially comes down to having home-and-homes versus the Georgia State, Akron one-offs at home.
To have seven home games a year, Penn State must schedule at least two non-conference home games when it plays five Big Ten home games (last year) and three non-conference home games when it has four Big Ten home games (this year).
When you only have three non-conference games to work with, the Nittany Lions can really only schedule one home-and-home type matchup per season because they have one non-conference road game available to use every two years.
Power Five conference schools like West Virginia won’t settle for those one-offs on the road, so it’s not really possible to schedule more than one high-quality non-conference game per season.
What further complicates the matter is scheduling that one quality out of conference matchup years in advance. At any point Penn State or its opponent could be having a down year, which derails the purpose of scheduling this type of game.
It’s not an issue that’s likely to go away in the coming years, but incidents like last year’s College Football Playoff snub make for interesting reasons to change this cycle.
“I think the playoffs are one factor that you’ve got to look at when it comes to scheduling,” Franklin said.
“I’m going to have my feelings based on my experiences, but then I’m also going to do a lot of different studies from an analytics perspective and some other things.”