When you assess where Penn State was in 2014 to where Penn State is now, the verdict is decidedly in James Franklin’s favor.
Yet there’s one glaring consistency that’s left the Nittany Lions outside the Big Ten title picture these past two seasons and made the beginning of Penn State’s conference title run that much harder in 2016: The team consistently struggles with the east’s big three.
Let’s take a look at the numbers during the head coach’s tenure.
Penn State’s Big Ten record since 2014: 25-15
To be honest, for a team that’s been in the New Year’s Six picture each of the last three years and has a Big Ten title to its name, 25-15 isn’t all that impressive.
That’s a credit to how far this team has come in five years, though. They’ve played all 13 other Big Ten teams since Franklin came on board, and have (mostly dominant) winning records against all but four teams.
Ohio State 1-4
Michigan State 1-4
Success against the majority of the Big Ten
Since 2015, the story’s been completely different for the Nittany Lions. While 2014’s 2-6 conference record skews the original data a bit, in the last four seasons, Penn State is 20-1 against Big Ten teams other than Ohio State, Michigan, and Michigan State.
That one loss came on the road against a ranked Northwestern team. True to form, it involved the Nittany Lions giving up a late fourth quarter lead.
Aside from that, Penn State’s asserted its dominance against most conference opponents. That’s not what’s going to take them to the big games, though.
Struggles with the east’s “big three”
With such a dominant record against a huge portion of the Big Ten, why hasn’t Penn State been more successful? Its season is usually derailed by the same opponents.
The Nittany Lions are 3-8 since 2015 against the Buckeyes, Spartans, and Wolverines. They have one win against each, knocking off two of these teams — Ohio State and Michigan State — during their conference title run in 2016, while taking down Michigan on their way to the No. 2 ranking in 2017.
Obviously it’s a bit different playing in the east instead of the west, where you wouldn’t have to face off with three teams aiming for a College Football Playoff spot most seasons. But still, you won’t make it very far in the college football world if you lose to the same 2-3 teams every year.
Why the Michigan game is still important
Let’s start with the obvious. All teams want to rack up as many wins as possible — Penn State hasn’t accrued three straight 10-win regular seasons since the 70s — and of course reaching the New Year’s Six is a symbol of top-level college football.
Neither of those things will happen without knocking off the fifth-ranked Wolverines.
Aside from this season, though, it’s about being able to overcome the nation’s better teams — even when they’re not having a down year. This is Michigan’s chance at a College Football Playoff spot. Wouldn’t it be great to be the team that changes that for once instead of just another stop on a team’s road to victory?
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