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Onward Debates: Should Penn State Football Have A ‘Protected Opponent?’

For years, Penn Staters have grown used to the football team’s annual matchups with Ohio State, Michigan, and Michigan State. However, with USC and UCLA joining the Big Ten in 2024, the conference has restructured how its football schedules are created.

According to the Big Ten, under the new scheduling system, teams will be assigned “protected opponents” that they are guaranteed to play every season. This system protects historic rivalries like Ohio State-Michigan and Illinois-Northwestern.

Under this new system, Penn State is the only team in the Big Ten conference that was not assigned a protected opponent. This means that there are no more guarantees that Penn State will play its formal Big Ten East opponents every season. For example, in the 2024 season, Penn State will not play Michigan.

This decision sparks the debate amongst Penn Staters: should Penn State have been assigned a “protected opponent?” If so, who? Two of our staffers are prepared to debate.

Mikey DeAngelis: Penn State doesn’t need a “protected opponent”

I don’t believe Penn State needs to have a protected opponent every season. In previous years, the team has struggled to win more than one out of three games against Ohio State, Michigan, and Michigan State. Now that USC and UCLA have joined the Big Ten, I think it would be too difficult for Penn State to face so many powerhouse programs annually.

You may ask, “So why not just pick one or two to play every year?” I don’t think Penn State has a truly historic rivalry with any one of the “big three” opponents more than others. The Nittany Lions play Michigan State for “rivalry week” every year but I think most Penn Staters would claim that either Ohio State or Michigan is the team’s biggest rival.

This new system allows Penn State to semi-regularly play all three of its biggest rivals without neglecting any one team or preventing matchups with the newcomers to the conference, USC and UCLA. Additionally, I think this new system actually makes the Nittany Lions’ schedule a bit easier and increases playoff chances, especially considering the incoming playoff expansion.

Aidan Conrad: Penn State should play Michigan State annually

I’m a strong believer that Penn State should have a protected opponent going forward in Big Ten play. The program is built off of tradition, so when you take away annual opponents such as Michigan, Ohio State, and Michigan State, the tradition of seeing those opponents each season diminishes.

Looking at the current state of the Big Ten, I believe if Penn State were to have only one protected opponent to face each year, it should be Michigan State. The rivalry between the two schools isn’t as fierce as other matchups across the country but it’s something for fans of both teams to look forward to during rivalry week. Without competing for the Land-Grant Trophy every season, things just won’t feel the same.

It’s clear that conferences aren’t set in stone for the future, and with that, we can see more teams joining the Big Ten. The first team I would like to join the conference and be Penn State’s protected opponent would be Pittsburgh. Many will agree that Penn State’s biggest rivalry is its little brother Pitt. The last time the two schools faced off was in 2017 when nearly 110,000 fans filled Beaver Stadium in a 33-14 victory for the Nittany Lions. This would be a fun matchup and rivalry to see every season.

Another option would be Notre Dame should it join the Big Ten. Penn State and Notre Dame are two very renowned football programs, and their fan bases are more than passionate. The last time the two schools played was in 2007 when a 110,078-person crowd took over Beaver Stadium to revel in a 31-10 Penn State win. This was the sixth-highest-attended game in Beaver Stadium history.

I stand by the side that Penn State should have a yearly protected opponent.

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