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For Penn State Athletics, 2020-21 Directors’ Cup Was Half-Empty

The final 2020-21 standings of the IMG Learfield Directors’ Cup were released late last week, largely unnoticed.

That’s a good thing for Penn State, a longtime perennial top 15 finisher — or often better — in the annual rankings of college athletics’ best broad-based program, encompassing both men’s and women’s sports.

Penn State ranked 39th overall, its worst finish by far, dating back to at least 2003.

For 2020-21, Big Ten colleagues Michigan (third) and Ohio State (ninth) both cracked the top 10. Texas finished first overall, followed by Stanford – which had a hold on the No. 1 spot for decades – Michigan, North Carolina, Florida, Southern Cal, Alabama, Arkansas, Ohio State and Georgia.

Learfield Cup points are awarded for each school’s success in the NCAA postseason and national rankings. Up to 19 sports based on their best finishes can be counted, no matter what four must be included: baseball, men’s basketball, women’s basketball — and, thankfully for Penn State – women’s volleyball.

Overall, for the 2020-21 season, Penn State finished ninth in the Learfield Cup standings among the 14 Big Ten schools in a year fraught, for all schools, with all kinds of practice, scheduling, quarantine and performance perils brought forth by COVID-19 and the pandemic.

Over the past 18 years, the previous lowest Penn State ranking among its Big Ten counterparts was fifth, in 2006-07.

Since 2002-03 — as far back that complete final national rankings are available online, though the Cup was established in 1993-94 – Penn State’s lowest finish was No. 21 in 2006-07. Prior to this past season, Penn State’s average finish was 13th. Its best seasons came in 2013-14 and 2002-03, when it finished No. 5 both times.

There were no final Learfield standings for the 2019-20 college sports season, which was halted in mid-March 2020. In 2018-19, Michigan was ranked third, Ohio State was 12th and Penn State was 13th. In 2017-18, Michigan and Ohio State were ranked Nos. 6-7, followed by Penn State at No. 12. In 2016-17, Ohio State was No. 2, Michigan was No. 6 and Penn State was No. 8.

So, of the modern-day Big Three, two held form in the pandemic. Penn State did not.

Based on three-year averages prior to 2020-21, Penn State experienced the biggest drop-off of all the Big Ten programs this past year, going from an average of a No. 11 finish to No. 39. In fact, as the chart shows below, eight of the Big Ten teams actually finished higher in the rankings in the pandemic year of 2020-21 vs. their prior three-year average. And two additional schools basically achieved at their normal level.

Conference members Wisconsin and Indiana (both with a drop of 19 spots vs. their three-year average), Purdue (minus 17) and Penn State (minus 28) saw the most precipitous drops vs. their normal placing.

It appears, then, that the pandemic impacted Penn State’s on-the-field performance — especially as it pertained to being successful at the NCAA tournament and national rankings levels — more than any other Big Ten school.

For 2020-21, Penn State’s saving grace was the typically top-notch performances by both its fencing and wresting squads, which garnered Penn State 90 points each (out of a maximum of 100). Women’s soccer, men’s soccer and women’s volleyball were Penn State’s next top-scoring squads, earning 64 points each.

Penn State athletics’ playing fields dot the University Park campus. Photo by


School2020-212018-192017-182016-17Avg. 16-17-18
Ohio State9th12th7th2nd7th
PENN STATE39th13th12th8th11th
Mich. State61st47th50th53rd50th


Here is a look at Penn State’s annual history in the Learfield Cup final standings, dating back to the 2002-03 sports season.

Annual stalwarts are fencing (Fen), wrestling (Wres), women’s volleyball (WVB) and women’s soccer (WSoc). A tally of 100 points denotes a national championship. Listed for each year are the top 5 point-scoring teams for Penn State, with the addition of football (FB).

Key for additional teams: women’s basketball (WBB), field hockey (FH), men’s gymnastics (MGym), women’s gymnastics (WGym), women’s indoor track & field (WIT&F), men’s indoor track & field (MIT&F), women’s lacrosse (WLax), men’s lacrosse (MLax), men’s soccer (MSoc) and men’s volleyball (MVB).

Year                National          B10      Top 5 Scorers                                                                          

2020-21           39th                  9th       Fen 90, Wres 90, WSoc 64, MSoc 65, WVB 64, FB 0

2019-20           no final standings; pandemic

2018-19           13th                  3rd        Wres 100, Fen 90, MLax 83, WSoc 73, WVB 73, FB 57

2017-18           12th                  3rd        Wres 100, WVB 83, Fen 80, WSoc 73, FB 70.5, FH 70 

2016-17           8th                    3rd        Wres 100, WLax 83, FB 72, Fen 69, WIT&F 66.75, WVB 64   

2015-16           20th                  4th        WSoc 100, Wres 100, WLax 83, MGym 73, Fen 72, FB 51

2014-15           8th                    2nd       WVB 100, Fen 90, MGym 85, WIT&F 73.5, WSoc 73, FB 45

2013-14           5th                    2nd       WVB 100, Fen 100, Wres 100, WGym/WBB/MSoc 64, FB 0

2012-13           6th                    2nd       Wres 100, WSoc 90, Fen 85, WVB 83, MGym 80, FB 0

2011-12           12th                  3rd         Wres 100, MGym 85, Fen 75, WSoc/WVB/WBB 64, FB 25    

2010-11           13th                  2nd        WVB 100, Wres 100, MIT&F 65.25, MSoc/MGym 64, FB 25

2009-10           11th                  2nd         WVB 100, Fen 100, WIT&F 80, FB 70.5, MVB 70 

2008-09           19th                  4th       WVB 100, Fen 100, WIT&F 72, FB 70.5, WGym 69

2007-08           9th                    2nd       WVB 100, MVB 100, FH 90, Wres 85, Fen 80, MGym 80, FB 49

2006-07           21st                  5th        Fen 100, MGym 100, WVB 74, WSoc 73, Wres 66, FB 49

2005-06           15th                  2nd       FB 85, WSoc 83, WGym 68.25, WVB 64, MSoc 64

2004-05           20th                  4th        n/a

2003-04           13th                  3rd        n/a

2002-03           5th                    n/a       n/a