Who and What are the College Football Bluebloods? Penn State Edition

Last week I took a look at what constitutes a “blueblood” college football program and set the barest minimum threshold at eight teams. I also concluded that while those eight teams have to be considered college football’s bluebloods by any strict standard, there are certainly more programs worth the title by other reasonable standards. I found Tennessee to be a college football blueblood despite the fact that they don’t have the utter conference domination nor the elite level of claimed and unclaimed national titles and All-Americans the other top eight teams have. Their titles, name brand, legendary names and traditions, and enviable history of winning are certainly worthy of blueblood status even if the numbers don’t place them in that absolute elite tier.

Tennessee is the first of several close cut teams whose history decade to decade epitomizes winning and whose legacy includes names and traditions that help make college football what it is. This is the tier that includes power programs like Penn State, Georgia, LSU, Auburn, West Virginia, Georgia Tech, Arkansas and Texas A&M. It also includes programs that have little success in the early years of the 20th century but in a few short decades have amassed conference and national titles and winning percentages that any team would be envious of. This includes the three Florida powers and perhaps even tiny Boise State who might lack national titles and a long prestigious history but who, since 1996, has consistently been a winning program (the third highest winning percentage in college football behind Notre Dame and Michigan) and has a post-season record that makes most of college football envious (2-0 in BCS Bowls, 1-0 in New Years Six bowls, 10-5 in all time FBS bowls, and an old Div. I-AA national championship).

These are the types of teams that dominated for decades as independent powers (Florida State and Penn State come to mind) or in lower tier conferences (West Virginia and Miami in the Big East also come to mind). These are also the first teams to get snatched up in realignment. These are also the teams that rank as the historic second to third place in their respective conferences in terms of wins, rankings, and championships. Texas dominated the SWC but Arkansas and Texas A&M make a good case for second place on that old conference’s power rankings (A&M has more conference championships and all time wins but Arkansas has a modern consensus championship and a winning record against the Aggies). Georgia Tech was a solid program in the SEC (five conference titles which is more than half the current SEC can claim) and it remains so in the ACC. Tennessee, Georgia, and LSU all fall behind Alabama in SEC titles but are nearly tied for the right to call themselves the SEC’s “second team” (Tennessee owns 13 conference championships, Georgia 12, and LSU 11). Even Auburn and Florida are nipping at those teams heels with eight conference titles apiece (not to mention their own slew of national titles).

The question for this post is,even if the Nittany Lions are in this “near elite” tier…are they a college football blueblood?

Penn State Nittany Lions

National Titles: 2 (14 including unclaimed)

Conference Titles: 4 (one in a Pennsylvania conference that played only in 1891 and three Big Ten titles, including two shared titles with Ohio State)

Win-Loss Record: 849-376-42

Heisman Winners: 1

All-Americans: 39

We’ve established that the elite eight programs dominate across the board in these categories save for Notre Dame which has never played in a conference. By the numbers PSU is at an elite level in terms of win-loss record and unclaimed national titles. There is a significant drop off in individual awards from the elite tier and you almost can’t count conference championships due to their 100-year independent streak that only ended in 1994. Like Tennessee they have tons of success, success the vast majority of college football could only hope for. Like Tennessee they have numerous legends that walk their sidelines from all the Linebackers that gave it the nickname Linebacker U to the infamous Joe Paterno who, for better and for worse, will define Penn State football for years to come. They own seven undefeated seasons (incredibly only one of which earned a consensus national championship) and their history ante-Paterno is just as impressive with names like Bill Hollenback (whose 1912 team went undefeated) and Rip Engle (who coached PSU for 15 years to a .679 winning percentage and hired his own former quarterback Joe Paterno as an assistant coach) well known throughout central Pennsylvania. 

The problem for Penn State is their huge success just wasn’t huge enough to be in that elite of the elite echelon. Perhaps being the second fiddle independent program behind the name program in America of Notre Dame did them harm. Perhaps the level of scheduling difficulty caught up to the Nittany Lions who for so many years feasted on small schools from the region. Not only did the Nittany Lions play 40+ games against Syracuse and Temple they notched 391 games against non-FBS teams including long running and lopsided early 20th century series against teams like Bucknell, Gettysburg, Lebanon Valley, and Carnegie Mellon. It’s hard however to deduct too many points from PSU for having these types of games litter their history since most programs have dubious matchups from their early history (I’m looking at you Longhorns and your 1903 game against the Texas School for the Deaf!) . But, for comparison, Notre Dame has played 206 non-FBS teams in its even longer history as an independent. Even Tennessee, a program roughly even with Penn State in terms of “bluebloodedness” and playing in the SEC which is allegedly notorious for filling its schedules with FCS cannon fodder, has only played 210 non-FBS teams in its history. Most major FBS programs have logged roughly 150-250 games against non-FBS opponents in their history; Penn State’s nearly 400 games has to count for (or would it be against?) something. This strength of schedule factor is also a likely factor in why the Nittany Lions have one national title to show for their seven undefeated seasons. This is partly due to perception, after all for the first 50 years of college football the only teams that “mattered” in the public’s eye and therefore for mythical national championships were the Ivies. We have to assume this is why the Nittany Lion’s undefeated seasons in 1897 and 1912 remain largely forgotten in the annals of college football history outside of State College.

But what about 1968? 1969? 1973? What happened in 1994? The problem was strength of schedule. That and a convoluted end to the 1969 season that involved Ohio State, Richard Nixon, and segregation.

In 1968 PSU started #10 in 1968 and rose quickly to #3 but they never advanced past that point. The Nittany Lions didn’t play a ranked team the entire season until they defeated #6 Kansas in the Orange Bowl. They ended #2, unable to pass undefeated Ohio State who defeated the #1 (Purdue), #2 (USC), and #4 (Michigan) teams in the same season.

In 1969 PSU only played one ranked team in the regular season, #17 West Virginia, and finished #2 once again, defeating #6 Missouri in the Orange Bowl. Compare to eventual champion Texas who defeated #8 Oklahoma, #2 Arkansas in one of the legendary games all time, and went on to defeat #9 Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl. 1969 is legendarily controversial to Penn State fans. For most of the year Ohio State was ranked #1 and had the national championship all but won until Michigan upset them in their final game of the year. It was for this reason that the end of season matchup between Arkansas and Texas suddenly became incredibly important, even more so when President Nixon announced he would attend the game and award a national championship plaque to the winner of the game which caused many pundits and Penn State fans to cry foul as the bowls had yet to be played. Furthermore the idea that the national championship was penciled in for Ohio State caused Penn State to reject an offer to play in the Cotton Bowl against the eventual SWC winner as a protest against segregation (the Arkansas v. Texas game was the last time a national championship was decided on the field between two all-white teams). The Michigan upset, the president’s attendance, the perceived strength of the SWC over Penn State’s schedule, and the Cotton Bowl controversy all combined to deny Penn State a consensus national championship.

Lastly, 1973 saw Penn State largely disrespected in the national polls on the basis of strength of schedule. The Nittany Lions went undefeated with their lone regular season win over a ranked team being a victory against #20 Pitt. They then defeated #13 LSU in the Orange Bowl to finish the season ranked #5. Penn State was overshadowed the entire year by Notre Dame, Alabama, Ohio State, and Oklahoma with the Tide and the Irish eventually splitting the national championship due to convoluted polling rules despite Notre Dame defeating Alabama 24-23 in the Sugar Bowl.

Lastly, in 1994 during their first year in the Big Ten, Penn State went undefeated with impressive wins against #14 USC, #5 Michigan, #21 Ohio State, and #12 Oregon in the Rose Bowl. The Nittany Lions were even ranked #1 in late October after defeating Michigan but fell to #2 the next week despite a 63-14 drubbing of Ohio State. The eventual national champion, Nebraska, defeated four teams in the regular season including #2 Colorado the same weekend Penn State defeated Ohio State. For pollsters, the Nittany Lions resume of defeating two ranked teams and the #5 team did not match up with defeating three ranked teams and the #2 team. Nebraska went on to defeat #3 Miami in the Orange Bowl to seal their championship. A final painful irony is that had Penn State remained an independent they would have had bowl flexibility to matchup with Nebraska in the Orange Bowl but instead, being a member of the Big Ten, went to the Rose Bowl for the traditional matchup.

So with the exception of one crazed ending in 1969, Penn State has largely been punished on account of its schedule. Even when they did join a conference the cards didn’t play out in their favor. It’s interesting to note that in every one of those scenarios the Nittany Lions failed to surpass teams from the elite eight: Ohio State in 1968, Texas in 1969, Notre Dame and Alabama in 1973, and even Nebraska in 1994 despite being in the Big Ten.

The Verdict: Sometimes the ball bounces your way, that’s historically a narrative the elite eight teams enjoy while the rest of college football commiserates. But Penn State has had the ball bounce their way many times in their history. You don’t win national championships, accumulate 800 wins, and have the historical relevance and tradition of the Nittany Lions because you’re bad. To all but the most skeptical Penn State is a blueblood. The Nittany Lions are right on the cusp of the top tier. They just haven’t gotten over that hump into all time elite territory. Yet.

***

The Bluebloods: Alabama, Michigan, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Penn State, Tennessee, Texas, USC

Next Up: Georgia

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