Penn State has its one Power 5 non-conference opponent per season lined up all the way through 2025, so you won’t see whatever teams it schedules next for a long, long time.
It’s natural to wonder, though, what coach James Franklin and athletic director Sandy Barbour might do with the Nittany Lions’ slate once they get past this mostly regional bloc of upcoming foes that includes Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech and West Virginia. (Only a home-and-home series with Auburn in 2021-22 takes Penn State out of the Mid-Atlantic region in the foreseeable future.)
Here are five teams it’d be cool to see Penn State add to the schedule in coming years, as well as the practical reasons for doing to. We’ll exclude those it has or will see in the non-conference between 2010 and 2025 for the sake of changing things up.
If college football operated like the NFL and scheduled year-to-year, this game could have been on the slate for 2017. There’s not a general fan of the sport — let alone a Penn State or USC fan — who’d pass on seeing Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley get another shot at Sam Darnold and the Trojans after they staged a classic Rose Bowl last month.
Alas, the best we can probably hope for, short of an improbable postseason rematch, is that administrators will do the right thing and get these programs together as soon as possible, even if that means most of the stars from that showdown in Pasadena have moved on from the college game.
There still would be plenty of benefits for the Nits. For one, should USC agree to a home-and-home, it would be the highest-profile non-conference program to visit Happy Valley since Alabama in 2011, so obviously there would be a ton of buzz for the home game. As our own Corey Masisak wrote a couple weeks ago, recruiting in California can be difficult for Penn State logistically. A road game in Los Angeles would give the Nits a little more exposure there and offer Franklin and his staff a chance to poke around the talent-rich high school scene a little more than they might be able to otherwise.
And the Trojans are a good bet to be right there in the national conversation for a while. Beating them would be a nice statement win to start any season.
The Hurricanes don’t have quite USC’s cache anymore. They haven’t won more than nine games since 2003 and have turned into one of those programs that TV talking heads prematurely declare “back” every year before another appearance in the lower-profile of Orlando’s two bowl games. (Whatever they’re calling that these days.)
Your Penn State Dad probably doesn’t care, though. The Nits upsetting Jimmy Johnson’s arrogant squad — the antithesis to Joe Paterno’s “Grand Experiment” — to win the 1986 national title is still one of the five best moments of his life, and he’d like nothing more than to pound the ‘Canes into the ground again — especially because he’s been stewing for a long time about Miami’s dominating win the last time these teams met in 2001.
More importantly, Florida is another fertile recruiting ground Penn State has struggled to tap in recent years, and it has played there just twice in this decade, both for bowl games. Finding a reason to be down there during the heat of high school season would be a good scouting opportunity and boost Penn State’s profile there a little bit.
Paterno once said he didn’t want to coach in the pros because he “didn’t want to leave college football to the Barry Switzers and Jackie Sherills of the world.” Not coincidentally, Penn State hasn’t seen Oklahoma since the 1980s, and that’s about the last time it saw the Longhorns in the regular season, too.
That should have changed 10 years ago, let alone by 2026 at the earliest. Texas and its environs is the third big high school football hotbed in which Penn State could use an expanded presence, and visits to Austin or Norman would help in that regard. Plus, if things work out with Tom Herman at Texas, both programs figure to be strong enough to offer Penn State an opportunity to burnish its College Football Playoff resume the way Ohio State did by downing the Sooners on the road early last season.
Many Penn Staters consider the Cardinal their closest relative in terms of values. Both schools have broadly successful athletic departments with high graduation rates in diverse academic fields, but they’ve met just five times ever and once since the 1970s.
So a cross-country series seems overdue. Not only would it be a nice celebration of those shared values, but Stanford has been one of the best teams in the Pac-12 for several years and could offer Penn State a nice resume boost with a win. And again, it can never hurt to have an extra opportunity to probe the West Coast recruiting scene.
OK, I said no recent opponents. And I realize many fans are probably still bitter about the loss to the Panthers on Sept. 10 at Heinz Field likely costing Penn State a CFP spot. They’ll also probably have had their fill after three more meetings with the Panthers in 2017-19.
Pitt is the closest thing Penn State has to a rival, though. They’ve met more than 100 times, often with national championship implications in the ’70s and ’80s. That has to count for something, and it doesn’t have to be an annual thing to be a great rivalry. Agreeing to play, say, four times scattered across a given decade and always having a next game scheduled would be a great way to honor that history while giving both teams some flexibility to pursue other scheduling interests, too.