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College Football Playoff’s Upcoming Expansion Proves Crucial To Penn State Football’s Ultimate Vision

On the east side of Beaver Stadium’s vast concrete and steel-laden structure, 17 dates are bolted onto the venue’s suite-level section, prevailing as the most decorative campaigns throughout Penn State football’s storied 136-year history. 

Each bolded, navy blue numeral represents a combination of undefeated seasons, national championships, or Big Ten title-winning efforts, with the lone anomaly serving as the Nittany Lions’ celebrated 8-4 run in 2012. 

Frankie Marzano | Onward State

While Penn State has certainly had its fair share of historical allure on the gridiron, the program only holds claim to two recognized national championship crowns, coming in 1982 and 1986. 

In fact, the squad hasn’t actually found itself in late-season contention for a title since the 1994 go-around, orchestrated by Joe Paterno and headlined by Kerry Collins, Ki-Jana Carter, and the early formation of the modern-day spread offense. 

That year, the Associated Press crowned Nebraska with the title distinction after knocking off a previously undefeated Miami unit in the Orange Bowl on New Year’s Day. Without even receiving a chance to cap off a miraculous, 11-0 stretch with a Rose Bowl victory coupled with a potential national championship honor, Penn State found itself as the defacto runner-up before kickoff even commenced with Oregon on January 2 in Pasadena. 

The Nittany Lions’ misfortune played a substantial role in creating the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) system, which streamlined a true national championship structure without conference postseason tie-ins affecting the title matchup. From the format’s inception in 1998 to its retirement in 2013, Penn State finished just outside the top two twice, boasting a No. 3 conclusion in 2005 and a No. 8 closure point in 2008. 

Since the College Football Playoff morphed into prominence in 2014, Penn State has found itself in an eerily similar position. In 2016, 2017, 2019, and even 2022, James Franklin’s group has continually knocked on the door of reaching the coveted top-four benchmark, but college football’s top-heavy structure has hindered the Nittany Lions from edging out the combination of Big Ten counterparts and SEC powers in pursuit of a championship. 

Last Thursday, Rose Bowl executives paved the way for a 12-team, College Football Playoff expansion set to begin in 2024, with a new deal ensuring its spot as an ongoing New Year’s Six bowl site. With the new format, the top six conference champions will receive automatic playoff bids, with the four highest-ranked squads slated to receive first-round byes. For the remaining eight programs, opening playoff matchups will be conducted at the home stadium of the higher-seeded opponent. 

Although many college football fans, and even some Penn State supporters, view the move as a minimization of college football’s intense, one-of-a-kind regular season gauntlet, the alteration benefits Penn State’s quest for the sport’s ultimate prize more than any other program moving forward. Moreover, the change will almost ensure annual increases in ticket sales, attendance figures, overall student interest, and donor-driven NIL capabilities for the foreseeable future. 

Across Franklin’s nine-year tenure in Happy Valley, the Nittany Lions would have made the 12-team dance five times, giving Penn State the sixth-most berths of all Power Five squads over the almost decade-long span. 

Despite constant backlash surrounding Franklin’s gaudy 10-year, $75 million guaranteed deal signed last November, competing for national titles on a basis of regularity could become routine for the Nittany Lions based on trends of recency. 

Additionally, postseason destinations on opposing campuses helps balance the Nittany Lions’ weaker out-of-conference slate scheduled through 2028. After the home-and-home bout with West Virginia, Penn State is slated to duel with Syracuse as the lone non-Big Ten, Power Five opponent over the next six campaigns.

With the addition of more frequent high-magnitude, non-conference matchups on campuses looming, here’s how Penn State’s opening-round matchups would have fared with a 12-team postseason format since 2016:

  • 2016 — First-Round Bye; Quarterfinal vs. No. 12 Western Michigan or No. 5 Ohio State
  • 2017 — No. 9 Penn State at No. 8 USC
  • 2018 — No. 12 Penn State at No. 5 Notre Dame
  • 2019 — No. 10 Penn State at No. 7 Baylor
  • 2022 — No. 11 Penn State at No. 6 Ohio State

Most notably, postseason rematches with Ohio State and the re-kindling of a dormant rivalry with Notre Dame would’ve generated incomparable buzz in comparison to the Nittany Lions’ disappointing and uninspired Citrus Bowl defeat to Kentucky on the heels of the 2018 season, for example. 

Furthermore, if Penn State secures a final ranking in the five to eight range beginning in 2024, Beaver Stadium would be subjected to host a win-or-go-home matchup for the first time in its 62-year history. Imagine a top-12 SEC unit traveling into blistering, 30-degree temperatures in front of a sold-out crowd to close out finals week. While the new format would allow more leeway in pursuit of regular-season perfection, the adjustment certainly benefits Penn State fans from several angles. 

Plus, with a potential playoff spot on the line during Penn State’s battle with Michigan State coming off of Thanksgiving break to wrap up a 10-win campaign, the quarter-full student section would’ve instead been packed to its brim. 

Instead of falling victim to dwindling student interest, as the Nittany Lions have around week eight each of the last two seasons, the 12-team alteration would keep even the most casual student supporters on the edge of their seats until the commencement of conference championship week. 

In a sport as traditionally entrenched as college football and at a place that’s almost always adverse to change like Penn State, groundbreaking adjustments of this magnitude are often hard to swallow, and that’s understandable. 

But the last time the Nittany Lions finished the regular season with just one loss happened in 2005. No two-loss team has even snuck into the current four-team structure, and the precedent would likely always hold true until its demise. 

If Penn State does reach high points including a 12-0 or 11-1 mark in the near future, a 12-team format would in no way minimize that accomplishment. Sure, it would’ve been nice to be on the inside of at least one four-team formatted playoff, but with such a small, concentrated field usually permeated with elite programs, that should’ve never been a yearly expectation for the Nittany Lions in the first place. 

Now, even if Penn State falls to high-caliber conference foes in Michigan and Ohio State, it could wind up with a well-deserved rematch when Franklin’s bunch is performing at its best. 

After Ohio State barely escaped a lowly Maryland bunch and fell by three scores to the Wolverines, the Nittany Lions would be licking their chops to receive another shot at Ryan Day’s Buckeyes — and for good reason. 

Change is always tough to adjust to, but relax, Nittany Nation. If the expansion of the playoff helps anyone, it’s Franklin’s crew.

If Penn State continues on its current trajectory of success, beginning with a potential New Year’s Six victory for the third time over the last six seasons, the Nittany Lions should be in a prime spot to morph into perennial national championship contenders for years to come. Let that sink in.

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About the Author

Connor Krause

Connor Krause is a junior from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania double majoring in journalism and business. He is a lifelong Penn State football and basketball fan and enjoys rooting for Pittsburgh sports teams. In his free time, Connor can be found playing golf or pick-up basketball. You can follow his Twitter and Instagram @ckrause_31.

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