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150 Years Of College Football: How Does Penn State Stack Up Against The Rest?

Officially established in 1869, college football has dominated Saturdays for generations. To celebrate the sport’s 150th anniversary, Sports Illustrated has put together 15 lists of college football’s greatest, ranging from legendary games to beloved dive bars, throughout the offseason.

Founded in 1887, Penn State’s football program has been around longer than most. So, it begs the question, how do the Nittany Lions compare to the rest of the country?

The Greatest Rivalries in College Football

Now, when you think of Penn State football, memorable match-ups against Ohio State, Michigan, and Pitt Michigan State come to mind. Penn State’s storied history features many legendary moments against these Big Ten foes, which surely go down in history as some of the most infamous ever, right? Sadly, Sports Illustrated disagrees.

The Nittany Lions were nowhere to be found on this top 10 list of the best all-time college football rivalries. The ranking is topped by Alabama-Auburn, a rivalry that still rages on each year in the Iron Bowl. The only Big Ten rivalry featured on this list is Ohio State-Michigan, which hasn’t been very competitive as of late. In fact, the Buckeyes have won 14 of their last 15 games against the Wolverines.

Honestly, being excluded from this list should suit the #UNRIVALED Penn State football program just fine.

The Greatest Traditions in College Football

Gameday traditions are part of what makes college football the spectacle that it is. Some unite entire stadiums, while others act as amusing diversions to distract opposing teams and gain publicity from broadcast crews. Penn State is no stranger to these traditions, as “We Are” chants and the annual White Out game have received national attention for years. Somehow, neither ritual made Sports Illustrated’s shortlist.

Oklahoma’s “Sooner Schooner,” a pregame ritual in which a Studebaker Conestoga wagon led by two horses named Boomer and Sooner storms the field, tops this list. Other notable entries include Ohio State’s dotting of the “I” and West Virginia’s postgame belting of the John Denver classic “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” Miami’s “Turnover Chain,” a gimmick that’s only been around for two years, somehow made this list instead of the White Out. Oof.

The Greatest Games in College Football History

Since 1869, hundreds of thousands of games have been played on the gridiron. Whether it be impossible comebacks or dominant performances, Penn State must certainly be featured on this list, right? Who could forget Todd Blackledge leading a 27-24 comeback win against Nebraska back in ’82, or the blocked field goal against Ohio State in 2016? Well, Sports Illustrated forgot.

2006’s Rose Bowl between USC and Texas tops this list. The match-up, which became an instant classic once the clock ran out, ended in a Texas victory when running back Vince Young barrelled into the end zone on a 4th and 5 to deliver a 41-38 win for the national title.

Other match-ups featured in Sports Illustrated’s top 10 include the 2017 CFP National Championship between Clemson and Alabama, the 1984 Orange Bowl between Miami and Nebraska, and 1988’s Notre Dame-Miami match-up, which is also known as “Catholics vs. Convicts.”

The Greatest Individual Game Performances in College Football History

Efforts from a single player can literally change a game in an instant. Whether it’s a quarterback posting unbelievable numbers or a defensive powerhouse keeping his team in the game, individuals go down in history for their legendary efforts. The Nittany Lions have their fair share of these performances. Quarterback Todd Blackledge, for example, launched a 45-yard touchdown to wide receiver Greg Garrity in the final moments of the 1983 Sugar Bowl. The score put the Nittany Lions up 27-17 and eventually won them the game and the program’s first national title.

However, there’s no blue and white to be found on this list. Sports Illustrated ranked Texas quarterback Vince Young’s performance in the 2006 Rose Bowl No. 1, which is certainly well-deserved. Other individual performances on this list include Barry Sanders’ record-breaking game against Texas Tech and former Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson’s performance in the 2017 CFP National Championship, which helped the Tigers capture their first championship since 1981.

The Greatest Fight Songs in College Football History

Ah, fight songs. Nothing rouses a packed Beaver Stadium more than a rendition of “Fight On, State,” so surely it must be somewhere on Sports Illustrated’s list, right? Think again.

Penn State was once again snubbed on this top 10 list. Sports Illustrated deemed Michigan’s “The Victors” college football’s No. 1 fight song. The Wolverine’s anthem is so popular that former United States President Gerald Ford often requested it be played in place of “Hail to the Chief,” and he even asked it to be played at his funeral. Other fight songs included are Notre Dame’s “Victory March,” Clemson’s “Tiger Rag,” and Washington’s “Bow Down to Washington.”

The Greatest Programs in College Football History

Although the game has been around for nearly 150 years now, college football has been dominated by some of the same programs since its inception. Few programs have been able to find success consistently, but those that did have been able to set records, grow bigger, and win national championships in the process. And yes, Penn State is finally included on this list.

The Nittany Lions rank No. 8 on Sports Illustrated’s list of the greatest programs in college football history. Honestly, this should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Penn State’s history. The Nittany Lions rank eighth in wins (887), tenth in all-time record (887-391-42), and tenth in bowl record (29-16-2).

Penn State has also claimed two national championships (1982 and 1986) as well as four Big Ten titles (1994, 2005, 2008, and 2016). Fellow Big Ten outfits Ohio State (No. 2), Michigan (No. 3), and Nebraska (No. 7) were also included in this list.

The Greatest Upsets in College Football History

Once again, there’s no Penn State to be found on this list of the best upsets in college football history. Neither Penn State’s win over Ohio State in 2016 nor 2005, the latter of which is widely considered as the first-ever White Out, were included on this list. The Nittany Lions’ win over the Buckeyes in 2005 was so raucous that fans inside Beaver Stadium registered on the Richter scale.

Fans can take comfort in the fact that Appalachian State’s 34-32 upset over then-No. 5 Michigan in 2005 tops this list. What’s even better is that the Wolverines paid the Mountaineers $400,000 to play them on national TV.

The Greatest Coaches in College Football History

Let’s not beat around the bush. Joe Paterno deserves to be on this list, but somehow Sports Illustrated decided to leave the winningest coach in FBS history out of it.

The former Nittany Lions’ head coach posted a 409–136–3 regular-season record in his tenure from 1966 to 2011, and he claimed two national championships and three Big Ten titles in the process. Paterno’s 409 wins still hold the record to this day, and it’s honestly not even close.

Even Alabama’s Nick Saban, who’s led his program to five national championships, is still nearly 200 wins away from Paterno’s record with 231 under his belt entering 2019. Saban clocks in at No. 2 on this list behind legendary coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, who won six national championships himself with Alabama.

The Greatest Stadiums in College Football History

The second-largest stadium in the United States, Beaver Stadium ranks No. 10 on Sports Illustrated’s list of the best stadiums in the country. With an official capacity of 106,572, only Michigan Stadium can hold more fans (107,601).

The Big House ranks No. 2 on this list behind the Rose Bowl, which comes in at No. 1. Other stadiums listed include Ohio State’s Ohio Stadium (No. 5), Clemson’s Memorial Stadium (No. 6), and Washington’s Husky Stadium (No. 7).

College Football’s Greatest College Towns

Anyone who’s been to State College on gameday knows that nothing beats the magic in the air leading up to Penn State football. Everyone you’ll pass from College Ave. to Atherton is just as excited about it as you are, and nothing brings folks together quite like a Saturday in Beaver Stadium. Despite the warm fuzzies you’re likely experiencing, State College failed to make Sports Illustrated’s shortlist of the best college towns in all of college football.

The magazine’s top choice was Madison, Wisconsin, which was chosen for its scenic views of the lakes and top-notch food and bar scene. The only other Big Ten town listed is Ann Arbor, Michigan. Now, I’m not sure how State College failed to make this list. The town’s downtown scene never fails to satisfy late-night cravings, and it’s previously been rated as one of the safest and overall best college towns in the nation. You can’t win ’em all, I suppose.

The Greatest Bowl Games in College Football History

When you’ve been playing college football as long as Penn State, you’re bound to have been in a few legendary bowl games. That’s certainly the case for the Nittany Lions, as they appear on this list three times.

First coming in at No. 9 is Penn State’s match-up against USC in the 2017 Rose Bowl. One of the highest-scoring Rose Bowls of all time, this game featured a dominant performance by Saquon Barkley in which the running back recorded 194 rushing yards and three total touchdowns. The Nittany Lions ultimately fell to USC 52-49 thanks to a comeback effort led by quarterback Sam Darnold.

The 1979 Sugar Bowl between Penn State and Alabama is ranked No. 6. The game was an all-out defensive battle that featured 20 punts, four fumbles, and 19 penalties. The Nittany Lions trailed Alabama 14-7 late in the game and marched down the field to the goal line as the clock wound down. Despite having 4th and inches on the 1-yard line, Penn State failed to score against Alabama’s defense, which secured a second straight national title for the Crimson Tide.

Last but not least is the 1987 Fiesta Bowl between Penn State and Miami, which comes in at No. 3. An ugly game all around, Penn State quarterback John Shaffer completed just 5-of-16 passes for 53 yards. That’s all it took, though, as opposing signal-caller Vinny Testaverde was picked off five times by the Nittany Lions. Joe Paterno’s squad ultimately defeated the Hurricanes 14-10.

The Greatest Individual Seasons in College Football History

Penn State had zero presence on Sports Illustrated’s list of the greatest individual performances in college football, so it should come as no surprise that the Nittany Lions are nowhere to be found on this list either.

The magazine’s top 10 is led by former Oklahoma State running back Barry Sanders, who totaled 2,628 rushing yards and 37 rushing touchdowns in 1988 — both of which are records that still stand today. The only Big Ten player featured is former Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who recorded 85 tackles, 12 sacks, and 24 tackles-for-loss in 2009.

The Greatest Mascots in College Football History

Alright, now this list is just absurd. The Nittany Lion is nowhere to be found, and the mascots that took his spot are… not the best. Sports Illustrated’s top 10 ranking lists Georgia’s bulldog, Uga, as the No. 1 mascot in all of college football. Other notable mascots include Stanford’s Tree (No. 5), Oregon’s Duck (No. 2), and Syracuse’s Otto the Orange (No. 9).

It’s tough to wrap my head around how the symbol of our best was left out of a list recognizing the best mascots in college football. The Nittany Lion has been entertaining Penn Staters in person since 1922 and was enshrined in the Mascot Hall of Fame earlier this summer. He’s just the eighth college mascot to enter the Hall, which makes it even harder to comprehend why he was left out of this list.

The Greatest Helmets in College Football History

Another list, another snub for Penn State. It seems that the Nittany Lions’ basic blue and white helmets aren’t flashy enough for Sports Illustrated. Notre Dame tops the magazine’s list, as its iconic gold helmets have represented the Golden Dome atop the Notre Dame Administration Building for decades. As if their iconic luster wasn’t enough, each helmet contains 23.9 karat gold flakes collected straight from the dome. Fellow Big Ten schools Michigan and Ohio State come in at No. 2 and No. 3, respectively.

The Greatest College Town Eats

Locals know State College is a great place to eat and drink. It’s got bars galore and an assortment of eateries ranging from classics like The Corner Room and The Tavern to newcomers like Snap Pizza and Juana’s. However, as much as we love what our backyard has to offer, Sports Illustrated seems to disagree.

Booches, a burger joint in Colombia, Missouri, takes the cake in the magazine’s rankings of college town eateries. The restaurant has been serving up burgers since 1884. Patrons won’t find fries on the menu, though. Booches supposedly doesn’t serve them because its burgers are that good. Other entries on this list include Mother Bear’s, a deep-dish pizza joint in Bloomington, Indiana, Zingerman’s, a classic deli in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Dixie Chicken in College Station, Texas. Waffle Houses around the nation rank No. 10 on this list. Since State College has two Waffle Shops, maybe the magazine can make an exception?

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About the Author

Matt DiSanto

Matt is a junior majoring in journalism and is Onward State's managing editor. He's a huge Philadelphia sports fan, fantasy football aficionado, and washed-up drummer hailing from Collegeville, Pa. The quickest way to his heart is Margherita pizza. His favorite shows include Community, Seinfeld, and Arrested Development, and he'll probably talk your ear off about them. Follow him on Twitter @mattdisanto_ for bad sports takes or email him at [email protected]


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