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Big Ten Realignment Yields Increased Competition For Penn State Football

Last week, Penn State erased a slow first half and trounced Northwestern 41 -13 in Evanston. While Northwestern may have been looking forward to the chance to upset a top-10 team, Penn State used the contest as another stepping stone on the way to dates with Ohio State and Michigan.

Currently, the Big Ten plays a nine-game conference schedule. With only three Big Ten teams currently ranked, albeit all in the top 10, seven of Penn State’s nine conference games feel like they’ve been decided well before the opening kick. The White Out against Iowa was the exception, but Penn State strung together another blowout regardless.

Aside from the brief first half scare against Northwestern, there was no question about who was going to win. Penn State’s mission in Evanston was to score as many points as possible and head home in time for class on Monday.

For the majority of its conference schedule, Penn State is competing against the spread, not another team.

These types of throwaway conference games don’t provide any excitement or competition that games against powerhouse teams do — Northwestern can’t challenge a team like Penn State for four quarters. However, with new conference teams and schedules on the horizon, the Big Ten could get a lot more interesting.

During the summer of 2022, the Big Ten accepted USC and UCLA into the conference. The Big Ten later released a schedule for future football seasons that was quickly rendered obsolete after Washington and Oregon also announced their intention to join the conference. With two new teams needing to be added, the Big Ten reworked and released its updated conference schedule Thursday.

Penn State still doesn’t have a protected rival it will play every year, but the schedule does feature some expected conference heavyweights in a regular capacity over the next five seasons. The influx of historically successful teams will only add to the competition within the conference and make a season worth more than the outcome of two games.

For Penn State, the two games with which the season rests are against Ohio State and Michigan. If Penn State wins both of those games, the Nittany Lions are headed to the Big Ten Championship. If Penn State splits, a complicated tie-breaker will likely ensue. If Penn State loses both, playoff hopes are gone.

Since the inception of the East and West divisions in 2014, the East has won every Big Ten Championship, and only two of the past 10 championships have been won by a team other than Ohio State and Michigan. The East always dominates the West, and the East is projected to be won by the same three teams every year.

While conference realignment has its flaws, the Big Ten is introducing three good teams next season. Washington, Oregon, and USC are currently ranked Nos. 7, 8, and 9 in the AP Poll. UCLA, the fourth team joining the conference, is currently unranked but has a history of playing some impressive football.

Next year, Penn State’s schedule features three teams that are currently ranked inside the AP top 10, even without Michigan on the schedule. This year, Ohio State and Michigan are the only top-10 matchups on the conference slate.

The majority of Penn State’s current schedule feels like 10 cupcake games surrounding two important matchups that carry the weight of the whole season because of the oligarchy that Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State have formed. Penn State’s only ranked opponent thus far was Iowa, who just barely cracked the top 25 and came into the White Out ranked No. 24. After the loss, Iowa hasn’t returned to the top 25.

Undefeated Maryland received votes in the last round of AP voting and will most likely make an appearance in the top 25 before Penn State comes to town in November, but the Terrapins still shouldn’t be much of a test for the Nittany Lions.

Right now, Penn State can only afford one loss, which has to come against either Michigan or Ohio State. With the new conference setup, having an undefeated or one-loss team every year may no longer be a foregone conclusion.

James Franklin has had a lot of trouble getting past both the Buckeyes and the Wolverines during his tenure. Because Penn State isn’t scheduled to play both Michigan and Ohio State in the same year during the next five seasons, Franklin may no longer need to.

Games with teams that are ranked similarly can go either way, and the realignment will ultimately make wins worth more while simultaneously making losses worth less.

If Penn State were to lose to a team like Northwestern or Rutgers, the Nittany Lions would sink like a stone in the rankings. If Penn State were to lose to a team like Oregon or Washington, it wouldn’t drop nearly as far. Concurrently, a win over Oregon or Washington would look better on a resume than a win over Northwestern, no matter the margin.

With a handful of teams ready to crack the lower half of the top-25 rankings, the Big Ten could be a powerful conference in the future. The talent that’s joining the Big Ten next season can’t be overlooked and forcing teams to face better opponents and be sharper sooner rather than later will only make the race to Indianapolis more exciting.

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About the Author

CJ Doebler

CJ is a junior double majoring in broadcast journalism and finance. He is from Northumberland, Pa, just east of State College. CJ is an avid Pittsburgh sports fan, but chooses to ignore the Pirates' existence. For the occasional random retweet and/or bad take, follow @CDoebler on Twitter. All complaints can be sent to [email protected].

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