I’m so jealous of Ohio State fans this week.
Not because of their team's success, recent or historical. It has nothing to do with their head coach, or their quarterback, or any of the monstrous playmakers and future NFLers that make up their secondary.
No, I’m jealous of Ohio State fans because they wake up in the morning and never wonder who their rival is.
They know it from birth. They know it before they even know how to verbalize it. They know it at a molecular level.
They know they love Ohio State, and hate Michigan, not necessarily in that order.
I feel similar pangs when I meet fans of Alabama or Auburn, USC or Notre Dame, Washington or Washington State, Florida or Florida State. They never have to wonder what their goals are, or who they need to measure themselves against. That’s a feeling that Penn State fans just can’t understand in 2016.
“Unrivaled” has become a buzzword during Coach James Franklin’s tenure at Penn State, but it’s been an overarching theme since the Nittany Lions joined the Big Ten: We don’t have a true rival.
It’s partly due to history. Penn State was an independent for 104 years, and didn’t consistently play the same teams every year as they would have with a conference schedule. Familiarity breeds contempt, and while Penn State did manage to build up some mutual disdain for a few programs, most of that momentum was lost when Penn State joined the Big Ten in 1993, and went from eleven games to schedule at its discretion to three.
Who is Penn State's one true rival in 2016?
A rival is someone you play every year. A rival is someone you’re evenly matched with, in the fullness of time. A rival is someone you hate. And, most importantly, your rival has to hate you back. Who ticks all those boxes for Penn State?
Much was made of the Penn State resurrecting its historic rivalry with Pitt earlier this year. But, the Keystone Classic is a four-year engagement, with no extension in sight. Michigan and Ohio State are clearly off the table, since they’re obsessed with each other. Maryland and Rutgers can’t honestly say they’ve been consistently competitive with Penn State.
So that leaves us with… Michigan State? They’re in a similar situation: A late-comer to the Big Ten, struggling to find their partner for the Rivalry Week dance. So, the Big Ten, with all the tact and consideration of a married couple setting up two long-single friends, waved its hands and said “Ta-Da! You’re rivals!” We’ve had some laughs at the expense of the Land-Grand Trophy, but you can’t just declare a rivalry by fiat. You have to earn it.
So, back to “Unrivaled."
Whether he meant it or not, Coach Franklin tapped into over a century of history in Happy Valley. He’s declared that every game on the schedule matters equally, and that the only goal is to go “1–0 this week.” You don’t need One True Rival, you just need to handle your business each and every week.
“Unrivaled” doesn’t satisfy my wish for laser-focused hate, but does it get results? Has “Unrivaled” given a young team with limited preseason expectations a fighting chance at a Big Ten division championship, and maybe more? If so, can we as a fan base sustain it? Will we be content with “Indiana Indiana Indiana,” or do we want to hate? Do we need to hate? Is it possible to forget about Pitt or Michigan or Ohio State or anyone else until it’s their turn on the schedule?
Maybe. Maybe not. Either way, it’s your turn this week, Sparty.