Monday’s announcement that Penn State and Auburn will play a home-and-home football series in 2021-22 is the latest indication of how quickly the Nittany Lions are recovering from the since-lifted NCAA sanctions stemming from the Sandusky scandal.
The initial sanctions, handed down in late July 2012, were supposed to include the loss of 40 scholarships over four years. Had they NOT been lifted, PSU would just now be at the scholarship nadir, and very likely unable to compete against Big Ten competition (or any Power 5 program). It would still be looking at years and years just to get back up to speed with the rest of the FBS.
That’s why, when people ripped the Nittany Lions’ non-conference schedule the last few years, the criticisms made no sense. Penn State would have been nuts to be taking on any sort of Power 5 muscle in the face of sanctions that many considered worse than the death penalty.
So the highlights of the 2013 non-con were Syracuse and UCF. In 2014, the top opponents were UCF and Temple. Last fall the “name” opponents were Temple and San Diego State.
It should be noted that PSU lost at home to UCF in ’13 and was blown out by Temple in Philadelphia last fall. The loss to the Owls was the Lions’ first since 1941. So it is safe to say State was still feeling the sting of the sanctions.
And it still is. By our account, the roster now includes 82 scholarship players — only three under the NCAA limit. However, closer inspection reveals a full two-third of the athletes to have freshman or sophomore eligibility.
Yet as those scholarship sanctions were slowly peeled away and eventually eliminated, Penn State began looking to bolster future non-conference schedules.
Part of that was already in place with a previously announced four-year home-and-home with Pitt that starts this year. Think of that as easing back into competition against quality Power 5 programs.
In January of 2015, Penn State announced it would be moving up part of its scheduled home-and-home series with Virginia Tech. The Nittany Lion are now visiting the Hokies in 2020 (with a return trip slated for 2025).
Monday, we learned that 2021 will feature a visit from Auburn, with the Nittany Lions returning the favor in 2022.
Then, in 2023 Penn State welcomes old Eastern rival West Virginia, before returning to Morgantown in 2024.
As noted above, Virginia Tech will be at Beaver Stadium in 2025.
Hoping to see even more high-profile programs on the non-conference schedule in the next decade? Well, you can pretty much forget about that.
The Big Ten’s decision to move to a nine-game conference schedule has reduced the non-cons to three games per season. So scheduling two Power 5 opponents in a given year and still trying to squeeze as many money-making home games in is very challenging.
Besides, PSU coach James Franklin and athletic director Sandy Barbour are both on record as saying what the Big Ten does for the team’s strength of schedule (coupled with one strong non-con foe) should be enough to get the Lions where they need to be if and when they climb into NCAA playoff contention. That’ll be a good debate to have if and when it happens.
In the meantime, there was a time not so long ago that the mere thought of Penn State being back in national title contention by the early 2020s would have seemed absurd.
And the thought of scheduling an SEC power like Auburn — even five years out — would have seemed pointless for both programs.
But not anymore.