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3-12: How Does Penn State Really Stack up vs. The Big Ten East?

by on July 11, 2019 7:45 PM


It may be the biggest thorn in James Franklin’s side since he arrived at Penn State 2,007 days ago.

And while it is certainly not the bane of his Big Ten existence, it could be close.

That five-year record vs. Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan is something of a counterweight against the success that CJF has had at PSU.

Why is it so important?

Because it’s as true today, Lifting for Life 49 days from the season-opener, as it will be on Nov. 23, when the Nittany Lions travel to The Horseshoe:

If Penn State is not successful against its biggest Big Ten East division rivals, they’ll have a tough time making it to the Big Ten Conference championship, to say nothing of the College Football Playoff. Last year, this year and every year.

“We Are…Better” has to be good enough to get two wins out of Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan nearly each and every season. Those wins mean more. They not only elevate Penn State, they push their biggest hurdles to the Big Ten title game deeper in the standings.

Franklin arrived in Happy Valley on Jan. 11, 2014, on the heels of some tough sanctions. Mark Dantonio has been the head coach at Michigan State since 2007. Brady Hoke was head coach at Michigan from 2011-2014; Jim Harbaugh came aboard in 2015. And Urban Meyer was head coach at Ohio State from 2012-2018. Ryan Day, who was the Buckeyes’ head coach for the first three games last season, is now the fulltime OSU boss.

Since Franklin arrived at Penn State, the round-robin record of The Big Four looks like this:

2014 to 2018 — Ohio State 13-2, Michigan State 8-7, Michigan 6-9, Penn State 3-12.

2016 to 2018 — Ohio State 8-1, Michigan 4-5, Penn State 3-6, Michigan State 3-6. In its last six games against The Big Three, Penn State is 1-5.

So, even over the past three years — when the Nittany Lions were on a 31-9 tear — they still had a tough time handling business inside the East, with two-thirds of their losses coming against teams that are the definition of “rivals.”

Overall, Franklin is 1-4 against each of The Big Three. The Nittany Lions beat Ohio State, 24-21, in 2016; Michigan State, 45-12, in 2016; and Michigan, 42-13, in 2017.

Half of Penn State’s 12 losses against The Big Three were decided by a TD and a PAT or less — and 21 points overall (losses of 1, 1 and 7 points to Ohio State; 3 and 5 points to Michigan State; and 5 points to Michigan). In many cases, Penn State came from ahead to lose.

(And yes, yes, we know: Michigan has not beaten Ohio State in 2,784 days…and counting...since a 40-34 victory in Ann Arbor on Nov. 26, 2011. That’s their problem.)


Let’s take a look at the past five years overall, to see where the Nittany Lion stack up against Ohio State, MSU and Michigan beyond the on-the-field head-to-head. As you’ll see, Michigan State does more with less; it severely lags in recruiting rankings and total NFL picks, but under Dantonio still does better in East division round-robin play than either Michigan and Penn State:

RECORD, 2014-18 (East Big Four, Big Ten, overall)

Ohio State — 13-2, 39-4, 62-7

Michigan — 6-9, 29-4, 43-21

Michigan State — 8-7, 27-16, 43-22

Penn State — 3-12, 27-16, 44-22


TITLES, 2014-18 (Division, Conference, National)

Ohio State — 3, 3, 1

Penn State — 1, 1, 0

Michigan State — 1, 1, 0



Ohio State — 1,4, 6, 5, 5

Penn State — nr, nr, 7, 8, 13

Michigan State — 5, 6, nr, 15, nr

Michigan — nr, 12, 10, nr, 8


RECRUITING, 2016-2020 (according to; 2020 as of 7/11)

Ohio State — ave. national ranking of 6.4; 3, 2, 2, 21, 4 (current)

Michigan — ave. national ranking of 9.4; 4, 4, 24, 10, 5 (current)

Penn State — ave. national ranking of 12.2; 21, 12, 5, 11, 12 (current)

Michigan State — ave. national ranking of 30.4; 18, 33, 26, 32, 43 (current)


NFL DRAFT PICKS, 2015-2019

Ohio State — 40 total; 5, 12, 7, 7, 9

Michigan — 23 total; 3, 3, 11, 2, 5

Penn State — 20 total; 3, 5, 1, 5, 6

Michigan State — 14 total; 4, 5, 2, 1, 2

Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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