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Who are the top 10 rivals for Penn State football?

Penn State football has had plenty of regional rivals over the years, but who are the top 10 rivals for the Nittany Lions?



Penn State football
Sept 8, 2007; University Park, PA, USA; Penn State wide receiver Derrick Williams (2) reacts after returning a punt for a touchdown in the first quarter against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Beaver Stadium. Mandatory Credit: James Lang-USA TODAY Sports Copyright © James Lang

Penn State football was independent for most of its history until joining the Big Ten in 1993. Many of the most frequent matchups are with teams who don’t reside in the midwestern conference. In recent years, Penn State has used the term “Unrivaled” due to a lack of an annual game with bad blood on both sides. It’s an unusual position, especially with all the historic rivalries in the conference, such as Ohio State-Michigan, Wisconsin-Minnesota, and Indiana-Purdue. Despite not having a traditional rival, these are the Top 10 rivals for Penn State football.

10. Temple Owls

Overall Record: 40-4-1 (.900)

Current Win Streak: Penn State 1 (2016)

Longest Win Streak: Penn State 31 (1952-2014)

The Owls are more of a geographic rival than anything else for Penn State football. The Nittany Lions have dominated the series that lasted 62 years until Temple pulled off the upset in 2015 at Lincoln Financial field. A game that saw Christian Hackenberg sacked ten times. While the series hasn’t been competitive, it has allowed each fanbase to make a relatively short road trip in-state. While Temple struggled for much of the 2000s, the series typically followed a two or three-for-one format in which Penn State would host most of the matchups. The schools have a future home and home scheduled for Philadelphia in 2026 and State College in 2027. Why Penn State ever agreed to a home and home with Temple, we will never know.

9. West Virginia Mountaineers

Overall Record: 48-9-2 (.831)

Current Win Streak: Penn State 4 (1989-1992)

Longest Win Streak: Penn State 25 (1959-1983)

West Virginia is the third-most-played team in Penn State football history. The two teams had previously played every season from 1947 to 1992 for a total of 45 straight years, and it was one of the traditional matchups that was a casualty when Penn State joined the Big Ten conference. The Nittany Lions and Mountaineers haven’t played in over 30 years, but that is coming to an end this season. The rivalry is being renewed with a home and home where Penn State will be hosting in 2023 and West Virginia hosting in 2024. The Nittany Lions have dominated this series, but the regionality of it keeps it on the list. This year, the old rivalry will be thrust back into the spotlight with a season-opening night game at Beaver Stadium and the first-ever broadcast on NBC as a part of the new Big 10 television deal. While both programs are experiencing different levels of success right now, expect both fanbases to travel well for each game and the atmospheres to be electric.

8. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Overall Record: 9-9-1 (.500)

Current Win Streak: Penn State 1 (2007)

Longest Win Streak: 3 Penn State (1981-1983 & 1985-1987) Notre Dame (1926-1976)

This is a rivalry that an older generation of Penn State football fans will remember quite fondly. The Nittany Lions and Fighting Irish played 12 consecutive seasons from 1981-1992 and was another series that was discontinued with Penn State joining the Big Ten Conference in 1993. The programs had a home and home in 2006 and 2007 that saw Notre Dame win 41-17 in South Bend and Penn State 31-10 in State College. The 2007 game was the first full stadium whiteout in Penn State history, and maybe heard one of the loudest crowd pops ever when Derrick Williams took a punt back 78 yards for a TD late in the first quarter. The two teams have played to a dead-even series tie through 19 matchups. With conference realignment rumors never-ending, this may be a rivalry that Millennials and Gen Z may get to experience on an annual basis soon.

7. Maryland Terrapins

Overall Record: 42-3-1 (.924)

Current Win Streak: Penn State 2 (2021-2022)

Longest Win Streak: Penn State 24 (1962-1988)

The Terrapins are the fourth-most-played opponent in Penn State football history, with 46 total matchups. The schools played almost every season from 1960 to 1993, where the series was discontinued when Penn State joined the Big Ten, only to be renewed, of course, when Maryland joined the conference in 2014. James Franklin is 7-2 against the Terrapins while at Penn State, with the two losses coming in 2014 and 2020. While this hasn’t been a particularly competitive series in recent years, that wasn’t always the case. Despite Penn State winning almost every season, the series had plenty of competitive games during the 1980s that saw a total of seven one-score games. The proximity of the two schools makes this a geographic rivalry, if nothing else. Plenty of Penn State fans make the trek to Byrd Stadium, where sometimes the fan split is close to 50/50. With Mike Locksley turning Maryland into a solid program, expect more competitive games on the field over the next few years and the recruiting to heat up in the DMV.

6. Iowa Hawkeyes

Overall Record: 17-14 (.548)

Current Win Streak: Iowa (2020-2021)

Longest Win Streak: Penn State 6 (2011-2019)

Shockingly, this is the 10th most-played opponent in Penn State football history. It seems that the Hawkeyes are always on the schedule, and they have been in recent years with six straight matchups between 2016 and 2021. The series has had plenty of excruciating losses, such as 2008, where No. 3 Penn State went to Iowa City and lost on a last-second field goal. The following year, No. 5 Penn State lost at home 21-10 to Iowa in a rain-soaked night game. After the Hawkeyes won eight of nine games between 2000 and 2010, Penn State followed it up with six straight wins from 2011 to 2019. Everyone remembers the exciting game-winner from Trace McSorley to Juwan Johnson in 2017 that kept the top five Penn State undefeated.

In addition to the exciting finishes, this game has drawn up some organic hatred between the two fanbases. It started with the last matchup in 2021, where Iowa fans booed Penn State players and accused them of faking injuries while on defense. The Hawkeyes would come back to win that game 23-20, which at the time was a No. 3 vs. No. 4 matchup, but the bad blood was already created. Sometimes rivalries are created by a good completive series, while others are kickstarted by an event that energizes both fanbases. Either way, this season, Penn State will host Iowa for the Whiteout, and there may be a little extra juice in the stadium than Minnesota in 2022.

5. Syracuse Orange

Overall Record: 43-23-5 (.641)

Current Win Streak: Penn State 5 (1989-2013)

Longest Win Streak: Penn State 16 (1971-1986)

This may not be a team that you would expect to see on a rivalry list, but Syracuse is the second-most-played team in Penn State football history, with a total of 71 games between the two programs. In fact, the teams played every single season but one from 1922 to 1990. Syracuse was a staple on the Penn State schedule for much of the Nittany Lions’ history until joining the Big Ten. The Nittany Lions’ control of this series on the field shouldn’t discount the historical significance of when these two play. The teams have played three times since the annual series was discontinued. There was a home and home in 2008 and 2009 that saw Penn State win 55-13 in Syracuse and 28-7 in State College. The other was a neutral site game in MetLife Stadium in 2013, where the Nittany Lions squeaked out a 23-17 victory over the Orange. The two will renew the series with another home and home where Penn State will host in 2027 and then travel to upstate New York in 2028. The upcoming series will be a fun throwback to a classic northeast matchup and give each fanbase a reasonably distanced away travel destination.

4. Michigan Wolverines

Overall Record: 10-16 (.385)

Current Win Streak: Michigan 2 (2021-2022)

Longest Win Streak: Michigan 9 (1997-2007)

We now arrive at the first team on this list where Penn State football has been the inferior team for the history of the matchup. The Wolverines are one of three Big Ten teams that Penn State has a losing record against. James Franklin is just 3-6 against Michigan in his time at Penn State. This matchup is often pointed to as one of the final hurdles for Franklin to get over to reach the next level. In recent years, the team who has been at home has found a way to win this game.

There is no doubt that Michigan and Penn State fans don’t like each other; it just isn’t that high on the rivalry list for Wolverine fans. Most would probably rank Ohio State, Michigan State, and Notre Dame all ahead of Penn State. This year’s matchup has the potential to be a top-five showdown in Beaver Stadium, with Michigan looking to win the Big Ten and make the playoff for the third consecutive year and Penn State looking to break through and make its first-ever College Football Playoff. No matter what the series record is, consistently ranked matchups will always make this game a must-see event.

3. Michigan State Spartans

Overall Record: 18-18-1 (.500)

Current Win Streak: Penn State 1 (2022)

Longest Win Streak: Michigan State 5 (1949-1966)

The Spartans have been one of the most competitive series for Penn State football since joining the Big Ten. Michigan State has appeared on the schedule the eight most times in school history. Despite the overall series being tied, Penn State has led 17-10 since joining the conference in 1993. The Big Ten tried to manufacture a rivalry between these two programs by creating the Land Grant Trophy. Some have called it the most beautiful trophy in all of college football.

Nonetheless, the Nittany Lions and Spartans playing the final game of the season was somewhat of a tradition from 1993 until 2010. The fanbases don’t necessarily have any hatred for each other, but both know that it is a fun series that has the ability to produce unpredictable results. James Franklin is 4-5 against Michigan State, and this year, with the more talented team, will look to even that record. This year’s game has an interesting wrinkle as it will be played at Ford Field in Detroit. This was a concession for the new TV deal partner NBC to ensure they could still have a night game in November. Don’t be surprised if many Penn State fans make the trip through the easy-to-access Detroit airport during Thanksgiving weekend, especially if the Nittany Lions are in contention for the Big Ten East title.

2. Ohio State Buckeyes

Overall Record: 14-24 (.368)

Current Win Streak: Ohio State 6 (2017-2022)

Longest Win Streak: Ohio State 6 (2017-2022)

Ohio State is probably who most Penn State football fans would consider their No. 1 rival. They have played every season since the Nittany Lions joined the Big Ten in 1993. The teams have competed a total of 38 times, which is good for sixth most in Penn State history. The series has been dominated in recent years by Ohio State and has begun to cause a lot of angst among the Penn State faithful about head coach James Franklin. This is the most bitter of, and closest game to, a true rivalry that Penn State has on its schedule annually. The fanbases simply do not like each other, and the competition for recruits in western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio only adds fuel to the fire. The Buckeyes are currently on their longest winning streak in series history, and Franklin is just 1-8 against the Scarlet and Grey, with that one win coming on the blocked field goal in 2016. In fact, Ohio State has won 14 of the last 17 matchups.

All that said, even Buckeye fans will admit that Penn State has been a tough matchup even in these past six seasons. Penn State had a double-digit fourth-quarter lead over Ohio State in 2017 and 2018 and even had a fourth-quarter lead last season in Beaver Stadium. This isn’t to bring up bad memories for Penn State fans. Instead, it shows that although this matchup has the worst winning percentage for the Nittany Lions against a team played at least 20 times, it still has been an exciting series. The talent discrepancy between the two programs has shown in the last few years that while Penn State has recruited well, it isn’t at the Ohio State level. This year, Franklin and company will have an opportunity to try and do what Penn State hasn’t done since 2011: win in Columbus. The Buckeyes will be breaking in a new quarterback, and Penn State returns a loaded defense. If there is a chance to snap the losing streak, 2023 could be the year.

1. Pittsburgh Panthers

Overall Record: 53-43-4 (.550)

Current Win Streak: Penn State 3 (2017-2019)

Longest Win Streak: Pittsburgh 14 (1922-1938)

Whenever you play a team 100 times in your history, and you occupy the same state, they are your de facto No. 1 rival. Even though Penn State football and Pittsburgh have landed in different conferences, the hatred runs deep. These two previously played every single year from 1900 to 1992, and another streak snapped when Penn State joined the Big Ten conference. The series resumed a short five years later for a four-game series, only to end for another 16 years where another four-game series was played. While the teams don’t play annually anymore, that didn’t stop the most recent series between 2016 and 2019 to have some serious animosity. Penn State won the most recent 4-game stint 3-1, but that one game in 2016 was a major reason why the Nittany Lions were left out of the playoff that season.

Many argue that this should be a game that is played every single season because it is an in-state game and the only natural rival for Penn State. Other fans argue that the Panthers aren’t as good as they used to be on the national level, and playing them doesn’t benefit Penn State if they win but rather only hurts the Nittany Lions if they lose. There is also the issue of only getting three nonconference games, one of which is a Power Five school. That means that if Penn State were to play Pitt every season, they wouldn’t have a spot for a home and home with a team like Auburn. Whichever side you fall, it still wouldn’t be bad to see this game back on the schedule for at least a home and home every decade. Who knows, maybe when the ACC eventually crumbles, the Panthers will be one of the teams that the Big Ten snatches up.

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Former contributor at Nittany Central, Patrick joined Basic Blues Nation in 2023 as the Social Media Director, Penn State Wrestling beat writer, and producer of the Penn State Roar Room spaces. Patrick is also a contributor of Penn State football, basketball, and ice hockey news for the site.


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