A Farewell To The Big Ten East: Looking Back At Penn State Football’s Conference Division
Oh Big Ten East, it’s been fun… well maybe not fun, but it’s definitely been something.
In 2014, almost 10 years ago, Rutgers and Maryland joined the Big Ten. This shakeup caused the conference to ditch the old “Legends and Leaders” divisions in favor of two new, geographic-based divisions: the Big Ten East and the Big Ten West.
In the Big Ten East division, Penn State played the newcomers every year, along with Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, and Indiana. This has been the case since 2014, until now.
With UCLA, USC, Oregon, and Washington set to join the Big Ten next season, the conference will be dissolving the division system and creating unique schedules every year. In this new system, some teams will have “protected opponents” that they play every year, but Penn State will not. This means there’s no team that Penn State is guaranteed to play annually.
Therefore, Penn State’s final regular-season game this year against Michigan State was its final game as a member of the Big Ten East. The Big Ten East is officially dead.
Penn State’s time in the Big Ten East was one of ups and downs. The system both benefitted and hurt the Nittany Lions, depending on how you look at things.
The clear negative of the Big Ten East, at least for Penn State, was the difficult path to the Big Ten Championship. In the division era of the Big Ten, the winner of the East met the winner of the West in the Big Ten title game.
I don’t think it’s any secret that the Big Ten East was the stronger of the two divisions. This put Penn State in a position where they likely needed to beat one of or both Ohio State and Michigan every season, a path that proved to be difficult, if not impossible, for the Nittany Lions.
The Penn State program, which was recovering from sanctions following the Sandusky Scandal, struggled to compete in such a loaded division, which often featured three or four Top-25 teams at a time.
There were positives, though. One positive of Penn State’s time in the Big Ten East was the consistent rivals. Inherently intense rivalries are good for college football and its fans. There’s a reason that Ohio State-Michigan or Alabama-Auburn will draw millions of viewers every year.
As a program that was formerly independent, Penn State entered the Big Ten without much specific animosity toward its fellow conference members. Over the years, fans grew to hate programs like Ohio State and Michigan more and more, and the Big Ten East allowed Penn State to play those teams every year, even if the results were poor.
It also preserved historical rivalries like the Land-Grant Rivalry against Michigan State. There was something special about Penn State having the opportunity to play for the greatest trophy in college sports every season.
Another positive of the Big Ten East was the geographical proximity. While the players likely enjoyed the short flight times, the fans also benefitted from annually playing teams that aren’t super far from Pennsylvania.
While the five-hour drive to Columbus from State College may seem boring now, it’s nothing compared to the drive to Minnesota or the flight to California that fans will have to do next season and in the future. Playing teams close to Pennsylvania allowed the fans to pack opposing stadiums easily and make their presence known.
Now, the Big Ten enters a new era that shines from sea to shining sea. The conference has fulfilled its manifest destiny and has cashed a few very large checks along the way. While Rutgers-USC and Oregon-Maryland don’t seem like natural conference matchups, that’s the reality of the new Big Ten.
So farewell, Big Ten East. While you weren’t perfect, I think there’s a good chance that we’ll look back at you fondly one day.
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About the Author
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