Even college football fans outside of New England weren’t as familiar with the Big Ten Conference before a grueling season-opening week in September.
Friday Night Fights. Concussions. Player sexual assault scandals. Big Ten media bashing. Player expulsions. A fallen athletic director.
Those nasty beginnings kept the league out of the national spotlight, only occasionally popping up for one of its famous victories, as Michigan State and Penn State battled for the inaugural College Football Playoff in 2016.
The stereotypes endured. The Big Ten goes into this season trying to demonstrate its resiliency, scrappiness and what it can offer in the nation’s capital. First test:
Washington State at No. 3 Penn State, Sept. 15
The WVU West, set to honor Joe Paterno, an icon in the Philadelphia-area, whose statue was toppled.
There were scores of fans’ signs, bouquets and candles dedicated to the former Pennsylvania State University head coach, who died in July at age 85. “Penn State’s recruiting must begin in the Northwest,” one sign read. One banner read: “Our hearts continue to beat for Joe.”
They were mostly quiet as a flyover by fire fighters saluted the Hall of Fame coach during halftime.
The Nittany Lions set a conference record in scoring with 546 points.
Arizona State at No. 10 Penn State, Sept. 29
The Michigans and Wisconsin-based Badgers were front-runners in the College Football Playoff the year before but fell behind UCF, a perennial AAC (Atlantic Coast Conference) member, in 2018, earning the Fiesta Bowl berth.
It’s part of the schools’ tradition to show up with a Big Ten title and NCAA BCS trophy. Penn State brought out a game ball from that 2013 season (the team won the conference) to the game and heard a lot of cheers.
As usual, the Lions held their own against a high-powered offense. Once the first down was reached, the crowd clapped and was quickly divided into a West Virginia side and a Penn State side, who lined up to see which side was to touch the gold trophy at the end of the game.
Wisconsin at No. 20 Penn State, Oct. 12
With the whole world giving the Big Ten an unwanted nickname — and a comparatively younger Big Ten conference coach Eric Bieniemy joined the chorus — a victory before Big Ten Legends and Leaders Media Days provided a needed boost for the conference.
Notably, out of the three Division I college football conferences with football teams, only the Pac-12 has had an offensive futility streak of not hitting the century mark in scoring. Penn State and Wisconsin both matched the year-ago 63 points.
For their efforts, Penn State and Wisconsin earned BCS bowl berths and a pair of rousing ovations from thousands of fans, including lines of airport pilots.
Ohio State at Penn State, Oct. 27
The Big Ten has dominated regular-season games since the College Football Playoff’s inception in 2014. A few more true-western teams and this year could change the narrative of two powerhouses determined to see who the conference champ will be.
Wake Forest won three of the four meetings in a 2013 game that raised national eyebrows for its national spotlight.
Game-time temperatures were in the 60s. Bobcats football executive director Jeff Arnold said previous college football exposure to the area and Wake Forest’s affordability made the game a “no-brainer” to host.
No. 8 Georgia Tech at No. 17 Penn State, Nov. 4
A Mid-Atlantic conference opponent has not favored Penn State. This season’s opponents include Army and a pair of games against West Virginia.
Game-time temperature was in the mid-50s with warm and humid conditions in the area. Penn State offensive line coach Jim Bono said that an inexperienced freshman gave his group trouble. He advised tackling as you pass and keeping the young player’s feet straight as you bring him down.