In the not-too-distant past, the Penn State/Pitt game was one of the biggest on the Nittany Lions’ schedule. It was circled on the calendar. It was must-see TV. But when they square off tomorrow at noon, not only will it be the 100th meeting between the two schools, it may also be their last (at least for the foreseeable future). In a sport that drips of nostalgia, where backyard rivalries run long and deep and bitter, the Nittany Lions and Panthers can’t seem to figure out a way to stay on the field…at least against each other.
The immediate response would be, “this game simply needs to be played.” While naysayers can talk of set conference schedules and limited non-league opponents, a long list of similar in-state rivalries can be rattled off the tongue; rivalries that are still going strong today and show no signs of ever stopping.
Clemson and South Carolina have played every year since 1909, while Georgia/Georgia Tech (1925), and Florida/Florida State (1958) have also been battling for generations. Like Penn State (Big Ten) and Pitt (ACC), none of these teams are in the same conference as their in-state foe, or at least haven’t been for years and years. Even Iowa (Big Ten) and Iowa State (Big 12) have played every year since 1977. While a mere 42 straight seasons pales in comparison to these other century-old rivalries, it seems like quite an achievement considering Penn State and Pitt can’t seem to get past a four-year term.
Why can these other states keep their rivalries going and Pennsylvania can’t? Here’s why.
Every big-time college football power plays a couple of cupcakes each year. Schools they know they can beat, but more importantly, schools they will only ever have to play at home. Therefore, they sell a lot of tickets, make truckloads of money, and since they never have to reciprocate by playing at the opposing team’s home field, they can make this money year after year after year.
So when Penn State plays Idaho and Buffalo, it’s partially to get an easy win but it’s mostly to cash an easy check. A big check. This is true not just of Penn State, but of all elite programs. Out of the 12-game schedule, everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, plays two of these cupcakes, at home, every season. Quite honestly, they’d be foolish not to. When you look at the big picture of college sports and the inherent costs involved, schools would be crazy to turn this money away.
Here lies the difference.
The South Eastern Conference, which houses Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina, only forces their teams to play eight conference games. The same with the Atlantic Coast Conference, who has Clemson, Georgia Tech, Florida State, and yes, Pitt.
So you take each school’s eight conference games, plus two cupcakes, and one in-state rival, and it still leaves one more game. A chance to schedule a legitimate opponent. This year, Clemson added Texas A&M, Georgia plays Notre Dame, Florida opened with Miami, while Pitt opened with Virginia.
The Big Ten makes their members play nine conference games, so those teams are left in a bind. After cashing in on their two cupcakes, they’re left with one more game and a choice between scheduling their in-state rival, or a national contender.
Iowa has made their choice; they’re playing Iowa State. Every year. Year after year. And that’s fine for Iowa. Their goal was to become a respected college football program and they’ve done that. They are a solid B program. In their bad years, they’re a B- or C+. In their best years, they’re a B+.
Penn State is different. They’re trying to contend for titles. So the question becomes, does Pitt help Penn State in that quest? For example, next year when they don’t play Pitt, Penn State travels to Blacksburg to take on Virginia Tech. Then, in 2021 and 2022, the Nittany Lions play a home and home with Auburn. While beating Pitt always sounds like fun to the faithful of Happy Valley, wouldn’t wins against VA Tech or Auburn help Penn State more in their hopes of a BCS birth? Also, creeping into the South can’t hurt recruiting, unless, of course, Penn State goes down there and gets smoked. But…what if the Nittany Lions head down south and get a win? That could pay real dividends; dividends you can’t get beating Pitt because, let’s be honest, Penn State dominates this state’s recruiting already.
This is where Pitt fans stand up and say “wait a minute! We beat you in 2016! You had Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley and we still won. The same year you beat Ohio State in the regular season and Wisconsin for the Big Ten Title, you couldn’t beat us!” And they’re right. September 10, 2016: Pitt 42, Penn State 39.
Pitt can also remind Penn State fans that in 2016, when Clemson won the National Championship by beating Ohio State 31-0 in the semis and Alabama 35-31 for the title, they did lose one game that year. It was at home, to Pitt. When was the last time Penn State beat the #1 team in the country in a true road game?
Also, Pitt has pumped out some legendary players throughout the years. While Penn State’s depth and coaching have helped them to a decisive advantage in the modern series, it’s not like Pitt hasn’t put out some superstars. Whoever Penn State’s best quarterback has been (probably Kerry Collins), he’s no Dan Marino. I don’t know who Penn State’s best NFL wideout was, but he’s not even close to Larry Fitzgerald. And while Franco Harris is in the Hall of Fame and Barkley seems well on his way, Pitt has two Hall of Fame running backs in Tony Dorsett and Curtis Martin. Shady McCoy wasn’t too bad either.
When you look at it that way, maybe the Panthers are good enough? Maybe Penn State should just play Pitt and forget about everybody else? A strong case can be made either way, and the discussion could go round and round and probably will into the upcoming hiatus. As a Pennsylvanian and a college football fan, I’d like to see the series continue on, but it would be hard to disagree with a Penn State fan who said “I’d rather play Auburn.”
Just know that tomorrow, when you climb the steps to your stadium seat or settle into you easy chair and turn on the television, you’ll be seeing these two Pennsylvania schools square off for the last time for a while. And sometime, probably just after halftime, Penn State fans, embracing the richness of the history, will look at each other, bask in the moment, and say…
“How about Maryland, next week? They look tough!”