Penn State Football: Future Non-Conference Schedules Lack Punch of Big Ten Foes
March 02, 2015 2:00 AM
by Mike Poorman
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Akron, Appalachian State, Army, Buffalo…

Georgia State, Kent State, Kent State again…

Pitt, Pitt again, San Diego State, Temple.

Those are Penn State’s next 11 home football opponents, from 2015 into 2019.

(Plus exciting in-state road contests on tap at Temple, Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh.)

Doesn’t exactly make chills run down your spine, does it? Or make you run for your checkbook. Sandy Barbour, who just completed her first six months as Penn State’s athletic director, heard you.

Barbour gets it. Penn State fans may be loyal, but they're not dumb. They certainly know the difference between Pitt and Shinola.

“The fans want a winning product, but they also want a challenge and they want some excitement around it,” Barbour told The Associated Press last week. “And they want to be able to see not only in their home venue a really high-profile team and a high-profile nationally interesting game, but also the opportunity to travel to some of those places.”

GOLDEN BEAR OF A SCHEDULE

She’s not kidding. At Cal in the Pac 12 Conference, where Barbour was AD for 10 years before coming to Penn State in August 2014, she impressively put her money where her scheduling mouth was.

Just look at the three home-and-home non-conference series Barbour left behind at Cal – with Texas (2015, ’16), Ole Miss (2017, ’19) and North Carolina (2017, ’18). Those aren’t outliers, either. Over the past four seasons, Cal’s schedule outside the Pac 12 included games against BYU, Northwestern, Utah and Ohio State.

The pressure to schedule smartly for non-conference opponents and at home, especially, has never been greater. Here’s why: After 2015, Penn State’s non-Big Ten conference football schedule will feature only three teams instead of four.

Beginning with the 2016 season, each Big Ten team will play nine conference games – all six division foes and three games against teams in the other Big Ten division. In even-numbered years, Penn State will play five home Big Ten games; in odd-numbered years, only four. So, in odd-numbered years Barbour must, most likely, have all three non-conference games take place in Beaver Stadium. The 2017 home slate has just that, with Akron, Pitt and Georgia State (a horrible 2-33 in 2012-14).

Overall, Penn State lacks a big-name non-conference opponent over the next five seasons. (It’s important to take into consideration that this was to be the heart of the hurt of the sanctions, digging into Penn State’s on-field abilities. And bowl games were off the table.) Meantime, other Big Ten teams have some big-time non-conference games already scheduled for 2015-19.

Maryland is playing Texas twice, once in Landover, Md. Michigan has BYU, Florida (at AT&T Stadium in Texas) and Arkansas. Michigan State faces Oregon in a rematch this fall, while Minnesota plays TCU. Nebraska has games coming up with Oregon and Miami (Fla.).

There’s more: Northwestern will play Duke, Stanford and Notre Dame. Ohio State has both Oklahoma and TCU – twice. Purdue is at Missouri, and Rutgers travels to both Washington and Miami (Fla.). Wisconsin plays Alabama (also at AT&T) in 2015 and LSU in Green Bay, Wis., in 2016.

Barbour, football coach James Franklin and associate athletic director Rick Kaluza are the Big Three for any changes to Penn State’s non-conference schedule. Games are set at least three years in advance, some with contracts, some without. These days, payouts to visiting non-conference teams can be up to $1 million – a steep price for doing business.

THE POWER (5)

Ultimately, the job of selling out Beaver Stadium is Barbour’s. And given the millions of dollars that home football games pump into PSU athletics’ already-thin coffers, it may be Job No. 1. And Barbour knows it.

Barbour told Travis Johnson of the Centre Daily Times that she believes one of the three non-Big Ten slots should be filled annually by a Power 5 conference team. Currently, Pitt fits the Power 5 bill for Penn State. The others do not -- although an away game at Virgina Tech is slated for 2020, with the Hokies on tap to visit Happy Valley in 2025.

“I think one of them should absolutely be a Power 5 conference and then you kind of apply the art and science of scheduling there and figure out how to balance,” she said. “The challenge with football scheduling is, you do it so far out, you could schedule somebody that just played in the national championship game and seven years from now they’re not a terribly competitive program or vice versa.”

Home games are more valuable than ever. Attendance, variable ticket pricing, multiple streams of game-day revenue, a new Big Ten Network deal in the works, positioning for the College Football Playoff, recruiting, preparation for a brutal Big Ten East Division schedule, rebounding from the scandal  – they all play a role.

In his first season at Penn State, Franklin more than did his part as a marketer. Even though the Nittany Lions were 0-4 in Big Ten home games for the first time in their 22 seasons in the conference, Beaver Stadium attendance was up an average of 5,036 fans a game. More impressively, attendance for non-conference home games increased by 6,531 fans per game – from 92,696 in 2013 to 99,227 in 2014. That’s despite a very ho-hum trio of non-conference opponents last season – Akron, UMass and Temple.

Still, that’s a far cry from the 104,513 fans Penn State averaged for 36 non-conference games in the 10 seasons (2001-10) after Beaver Stadium was renovated and seating was increased. The high-water mark came in 2007, when an average of 108,421 fans per non-conference game saw Notre Dame, Florida International and Buffalo play in Beaver Stadium.

Joe Paterno was a big draw during that time. So were some great teams – despite some very down seasons. But opponents do matter. Since Penn State joined the Big Ten in 1993 through the 2010 season, PSU hosted such non-conference foes as Arizona, Louisville, Miami (Fla.), Nebraska (prior to joining the Big Ten), Notre Dame, Oregon State, Pitt, Southern Cal, Texas Tech and Virginia.

In Penn State’s 16 non-conference home games since (2011-2014), there’s been exactly one headliner – Alabama, in 2011, which beat Penn State, 27-11.

NON-CON SINCE 1993: 65-14

Historically, Penn State non-con games have been much more pro than con. While in the Big Ten, Penn State has played 79 non-conference games -- going 6-8 on the road and 59-6 in Beaver Stadium. The six home losses were to Toledo (2000), Miami, Fla. (2001), Boston College (2003), Alabama (2011), Ohio (2012) and Central Florida (2013).

Victory has nearly always been assured, and but lately fan interest has not. More than the Sandusky scandal, the STEP seat-licensing program that Penn State rolled out in 2011 has hurt attendance. So while the program may have raised revenues a bit, it lowered the number of ticket-buyers, From a high of 108,917 in 2008 to a low of 96,730 in 2012, Beaver Stadium attendance dipped 11.11%.

That's why the climb in 2014 was such a big deal. But moving forward, the biggest sell will be non-conference games. And that’s why Penn State has turned to variable pricing for its three non-conference home games in 2015 – Buffalo, San Diego State and Army. The cheapest single-game ticket for those games is $40 each, while the same seat costs more for Illinois ($60), Indiana ($80), Rutgers ($100) and Michigan ($100).

Barbour already told the AP that, in essence, other changes are on the way. But when?

Don’t be surprised if Barbour starts sooner rather than later, since the next few seasons are nothing to write home – or a big check – about.

2015-19 BIG TEN NON-CONFERENCE SCHEDULES

ILLINOIS --- 2015 – Kent State, W. Illinois, at North Carolina, Middle Tennessee; 2016 – Murray State, North Carolina, W. Michigan; 2017 – Ball State, at South Florida, Western Kentucky; 2018 – Kent State, W. Illinois, South Florida; 2019 – at UConn, E. Michigan.

INDIANA --- 2015 – S. Illinois, FIU, Western Kentucky, at Wake Forest; 2016 – FIU, Ball State, Wake Forest; 2017 – UMass.

IOWA --- 2015 – Illinois State, at Iowa State, Pitt, North Texas; 2016 - Miami (O), Iowa State, North Dakota State; 2017 – Wyoming, at Iowa State, North Texas; 2018 – N. Illinois, Iowa State, Northern Iowa; 2019 – Miami (O), at Iowa State.

MARYLAND --- 2015 – Richmond, Bowling Green, South Florida, at West Virginia; 2016 – Howard, at FIU, at UCF; 2017 – at Texas, Towson, UCF; 2018 – Texas, at Bowling Green, Temple; 2019 – Bowling Green, at Temple, Syracuse.

MICHIGAN --- 2015 – at Utah, Oregon State, UNLV, BYU; 2016 – Hawaii, Colorado; 2017 – Florida at AT&T Stadium (Texas), Air Force; 2018 - Arkansas, SMU; 2019 – Arkansas.

MICHIGAN  STATE --- 2015 – at W. Michigan, Oregon, Air Force, C. Michigan; 2016 – Furman, at Notre Dame. 2017 – W. Michigan, Notre Dame; 2018 – Arizona State, C. Michigan. 2019 – W. Michigan, Arizona State.

MINNESOTA --- 2015 – TCU, at Colorado State, Kent State, Ohio; 2016 - Oregon State, Indiana State, Colorado State; 2017 – Buffalo, at Oregon State, Middle Tennessee; 2018 – Miami (O); 2019 – San Diego State.

NEBRASKA --- 2015 – BYU, S. Alabama, at Miami (Fla.), S. Mississippi; 2016 – Fresno State, Wyoming, Oregon; 2017 – at Oregon, N. Illinois; 2018 – Akron, Colorado, Troy; 2019 – S. Alabama, at Colorado, N. Illinois.

OHIO STATE --- 2015 – at Virginia Tech, Hawaii, N. Illinois, W. Michigan; 2016 – Bowling Green, Tulsa, at Oklahoma; 2017 – Oklahoma, UNLV; 2018 – Oregon State, at TCU; 2019 – Cincinnati, TCU.

PENN STATE --- 2015 – at Temple, Buffalo, San Diego State, Army; 2016 – Kent State, at Pitt, Temple; 2017 – Akron, Pitt, Georgia State; 2018 – Appalachian State, at Pitt, Kent State; 2019 – Pitt.

PURDUE --- 2015 – at Marshall, Indiana State, Virginia Tech, Bowling Green; 2016 – E. Kentucky, Cincinnati, Nevada; 2017 – at Missouri; 2018 – E. Michigan, Missouri; 2019 – at Nevada

RUTGERS --- 2015 – Norfolk State, Washington State, Kansas, at Army; 2016 – at Washington, Howard, New Mexico; 2017 – Washington, Morgan State, E. Michigan; 2018 – at Kansas, Miami (Fla.); 2019 – at Miami (Fla.).

WISCONSIN --- 2015 – Alabama at AT&T Stadium (Texas), Miami (O), Troy, Hawaii; 2016 – LSU (at Green Bay, Wis.), Akron, Georgia State; 2017 – Utah State, Florida Atlantic, at USF; 2018 – New Mexico, BYU; 2019 – at BYU.

 

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