The recent matchups have been instant classics.
In the past two seasons, Ohio State rallied from double-digit deficits in the fourth quarter to upend Penn State.
A blocked field-goal attempt, returned for a touchdown in the final minutes, pushed the Nittany Lions toward an upset of the Buckeyes in 2016.
The results determined the eventual winner of the Big Ten East.
Get the news delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our BuckeyeXtra newsletter
Similar high stakes surround the teams as they prepare to meet at Ohio Stadium on Saturday, with the division up for grabs, as well as a possible spot in the College Football Playoff. Both were in the top 10 of the playoff rankings last week, with the Buckeyes at No. 2.
But the recent thrillers have not led to a heated rivalry among their fan bases.
A study from two professors, examining sports rivalries in professional sports leagues and college football, ranked Ohio State vs. Penn State as the second-most unbalanced rivalry in the Big Ten.
As part of their research, collected at knowrivalry.com, the professors asked fans to distribute 100 points among the rivals of their favorite teams.
Penn State fans allocated 37.43 points to Ohio State, making the Buckeyes their most-hated rival, but Ohio State fans used only 3.51 points toward the Nittany Lions, a disparity of almost 34 points. Among the Big Ten teams, only Michigan and Michigan State saw a greater imbalance.
Buckeyes fans just don’t reciprocate the animosity.
“In terms of that emotional rivalry and feelings toward Penn State, it's not anywhere close to the feelings of Michigan,” said David Tyler, an associate professor of sports management at Western Carolina who conducted the study with Joe Cobbs, an associate professor of sports business at Northern Kentucky.
The Buckeyes’ long-standing rival consumes much of their fans’ attention.
Ohio State fans allocated 90.71 points toward the Wolverines. No other college fan base assigned more points toward one team, according to the research, though Army vs. Navy was not included due to insufficient responses.
"I hate a lot of teams,” wrote an Ohio State fan in response,” but I couldn't justify taking points from Michigan. It felt wrong."
The professors considered the lifespan of the rivalries as the foremost reason that Penn State has remained an afterthought compared with Michigan.
When Ohio State hosts the Nittany Lions on Saturday, it will be the 34th meeting between the teams. They have played annually only since 1993, when Penn State joined the Big Ten.
But the Buckeyes and Wolverines have played 114 times, first meeting in 1897.
“When you think about all the history that is seeped into those hundred years of games between Ohio State and Michigan,” Tyler said, “it's tough for Penn State, given how new that rivalry is, to have defining moments and to have their own history that can compete with the long-standing history of Michigan.”
It matters far less that Penn State has been more competitive on the field in this century, while Michigan hasn’t beaten Ohio State since 2011 or won the Big Ten since sharing title in 2004.
While the Nittany Lions have contended with the Buckeyes for the division title during their resurgence under coach James Franklin since 2014, the Wolverines stood as the top adversary for most of the 20th century.
“It’s going to take another couple decades or more for Penn State to really get into Ohio State fans' consciousness in the same way that Michigan is ingrained,” said Cobbs, who also attended Ohio State as a graduate student.
According to the study, Penn State even trailed Wisconsin among Ohio State fans, who assigned 3.61 points to the Badgers.
Fans of other college football teams more easily had room in their consciousness for secondary rivals.
Although Alabama faces Auburn in the Iron Bowl, considered one of the more bitter matchups in college football, the Crimson Tide fans assigned only 48.21 points to Auburn, with 25.42 points going to Tennessee and 19.94 points to LSU.
The focus that Penn State fans reserve for Ohio State is owed to the absence of a traditional rival in the Big Ten. The Nittany Lions’ second-biggest rival, Pittsburgh of the Atlantic Coast Conference, has not been a regular opponent since 2000. After having met this season and the three previous ones, they are not expected to play each other again until at least 2030, which should continue to leave much of the ire from central Pennsylvania to be directed elsewhere, probably toward Columbus.