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Penn State Is Playing Its Biggest Game In 20 Years

While this week’s Big Ten showdown is just another Saturday in Columbus for Urban Meyer’s Ohio State Buckeyes, games of this magnitude have been rare of late for Penn State. Once one of the premier football programs in the country, Penn State paid the price in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal that saw it temporarily lose postseason eligibility and scholarships. Fast forward to 2017, and the Nittany Lions are back on the national stage and ranked No. 2 — their highest ranking in 18 seasons. After a re-emergence to relevancy last season that saw it win the Big Ten championship game over Wisconsin, Penn State has its first legitimate shot at winning a national title in the College Football Playoff era.

On Saturday, Penn State travels to the Horseshoe to face Ohio State in what’s being hailed as a “de facto” Big Ten East title game. A defeat for Penn State would leave it with just a 14 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to FiveThirtyEight’s predictions.1 For the Buckeyes, another defeat would all but end their chance of making the Final Four. But their experience in games of such high importance may give them an edge.

Using the combined Elo ratings2 at kickoff of both teams, we ranked the biggest Big Ten conference games since 1993 — when Penn State joined the conference. For the purpose of this exercise, we tossed out the Big Ten title game, which is only 6 years old and played on a neutral field. By this measure, Saturday’s game ranks as the eighth best conference game in nearly 25 years.

The Buckeyes are used to big games

The combined Elo ratings of the two Big Ten schools featured in the top 20 conference matchups since 1993

1 1997 Michigan Ohio State 2072 1960 4032 Michigan
2 2006 Ohio State Michigan 2041 1989 4029 Ohio State
3 1997 Penn State Michigan 1974 1957 3931 Michigan
4 2003 Michigan Ohio State 1949 1979 3928 Michigan
5 2015 Ohio State Mich. State 2034 1871 3905 Mich. State
6 2016 Ohio State Michigan 1999 1888 3886 Ohio State
7 1997 Penn State Ohio State 1904 1947 3851 Penn State
8 2017 Ohio State Penn State 1868 1961 3829 ?
9 2015 Michigan Ohio State 1871 1952 3824 Ohio State
10 1998 Ohio State Michigan 1858 1958 3816 Ohio State
11 2002 Ohio State Michigan 1973 1827 3801 Ohio State
12 2008 Ohio State Penn State 1903 1895 3797 Penn State
13 1996 Ohio State Penn State 1881 1915 3796 Ohio State
14 2003 Ohio State Purdue 1944 1850 3794 Ohio State
15 1997 Wisconsin Michigan 1744 2050 3794 Michigan
16 1999 Mich. State Michigan 1826 1968 3793 Mich. State
17 1996 Iowa Ohio State 1799 1992 3791 Ohio State
18 1996 Ohio State Michigan 2043 1745 3788 Michigan
19 2016 Wisconsin Ohio State 1834 1952 3786 Ohio State
20 1999 Purdue Penn State 1834 1939 3773 Penn State

Excluding Big Ten championship games


Using all the mathematical wizardry at FiveThirtyEight’s disposal, we were able to deduce a trend on this list: Ohio State is usually involved — the Buckeyes appeared in 16 of the top 20 matchups. Three of the top four spots on the list are held by Ohio State’s annual year-ending showdown against “that team up north.” The list also reflects the recent dominance of Meyer’s Buckeyes since he took over in 2012: Ohio State has played a regular-season conference game of this magnitude in each of the past two seasons.

Penn State, meanwhile, is in unfamiliar waters. You’d have to go back to the 1997 season to find a moment like this for the Nittany Lions. That Joe Paterno team started 7-0, including a win over Ohio State in Beaver Stadium (seventh on the list), before it all came crashing down when the team was routed by Michigan at home (third).

But while Ohio State may hold the edge in big-game experience, these two teams match up relatively equally in nearly everything else. Neither has showed weakness on either side of the ball: Both offenses and defenses rank near the top of FBS in yards per play (Penn State is 16th; Ohio State is sixth) and yards per play allowed (Penn State is third; Ohio State, 13th). For points scored and allowed per game, each is among the best in the nation:

OSU’s offense has dominated since its Week 2 loss to Oklahoma, taking out its frustration on the next five unfortunate teams on the schedule — the Buckeyes have outscored their opponents by an average of 42 points per game in those weeks, good enough for No. 1 of any Power Five team. For PSU, running back Saquon Barkley has drawn much of the attention for his Heisman Trophy candidacy, but the star has been the team’s defense: It’s tied at No. 1 with Alabama in points allowed per game. Any time your team compares with Alabama, you’re doing something right.

For one of these teams, the path to the Atlanta will continue into Week 10. For the loser, the season may be over in an instant.


  1. Odds are independent of other games involving CFP-contending teams.

  2. Elo is a metric that estimates each team’s skill level using only the final scores and locations of each game. An Elo rating of roughly 1500 is considered average.

Daniel Levitt is a former sports intern with FiveThirtyEight. He now runs the journalism newsletter and job board Inside The Newsroom.