Beating a Top-5 Team is Difficult. Just Ask Penn State

The Lions are 3-19 against top-5 teams since 1994. They get another chance at No. 3 Iowa on Saturday.
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Penn State gets another opportunity to beat a top-5 team Saturday, when it visits No. 3 Iowa. The Lions don't have a great history in those games, which isn't surprising. It's really, really hard to beat a top-5 team.

Iowa hosts No. 4 Penn State in Kinnick Stadium's first matchup of top-5 teams since 1985. No. 1 Iowa defeated No. 2 Michigan 12-10 that year.

In the Big Ten, top-5 matchups are rare, particularly those that don't involve Ohio State. This is the first regular-season conference game featuring two top-5 teams without Ohio State since No. 4 Michigan's 34-8 win over No. 2 Penn State in 1997.

Which brings us to Penn State's history against top-5 opponents. As you'd expect, the opponents have the edge.

The Lions are 4-6 in regular-season games featuring two top-5 teams and are playing in their first such game since 1999. That year, the No. 3 Lions defeated No. 4 Arizona 41-7.

Penn State in top 5 games

Penn State is 17-54-1 all-time when playing teams ranked in the top 5 and 15-49 in regular-season games. The Lions have struggled against top-5 opponents since 1994, particularly on the road.

In 1994, No. 3 Penn State won at No. 5 Michigan 31-24, a signature victory of its last undefeated season. But since then, the Lions are 0-11 in road games vs. top-5 teams, most of which haven't been close.

Opponents have held Penn State to 10 or fewer points in eight of those 11 games. The Lions also have lost eight times by 21 or more points.

In all, Penn State is 3-19 in games against top-5 teams since 1994. The third victory was James Franklin's 24-21 signature win over No. 2 Ohio State in 2016.


Of course, Penn State has fared well when ranked in the top 5. The Lions are 101-22-1 and 6-3 under Franklin as a top-5 team.

As for Iowa, a few notes on its history in top-5 games and in games vs. ranked opponents:

  • This is Iowa's sixth game in which both teams are ranked in the top 5.
  • The Hawkeyes are 2-3 in previous games.
  • Iowa's last top-5 game was the 2015 Big Ten championship. The fourth-ranked Hawkeyes lost to No. 5 Michigan State 16-13.
  • Iowa has won its last five games against ranked opponents.
  • Penn State and Iowa are meeting for the sixth time as ranked opponents. Penn State is 4-1 in the previous five games.

Penn State visits Iowa at 4 pm ET Saturday at Kinnick Stadium. Fox will televise. The Hawkeyes are a 2-point favorite, according to SI Sportsbook.

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