Pitt and Penn State are two years into a four-year revival of their nasty, petty, and historic football rivalry. The schools have played each other most years since 1893, and their series was one of the best in the sport during its apex in the 1970s and early ‘80s. They didn’t play for 16 years after 2000, and they met again in 2016. It’s been great to have the series back. The teams have split it 1-1 so far, and both games have been full of energy.
But it’s a fleeting return. Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour indicated this week that the teams won’t play again until at least 2030, because of a “complicating puzzle” of scheduling. Her AD counterpart at Pitt, Heather Lyke, said late in 2017 that the schools were “very close to being done” with a deal to renew the series again. So, what’s happened?
Part of this is simple: Penn State’s schedule is crowded.
The Big Ten plays a nine-game conference slate, leaving the Nittany Lions three other game dates to play around with every season.
Though Pitt used to play most of the games in this series at home, back in an era before Penn State and Beaver Stadium were what they are now, the modern Panthers are never going to agree to give Penn State more home games than Pitt gets.
So, there’s a problem. PSU blog Black Shoe Diaries takes us through the logical steps:
There are six non-conference games every two years. Penn State wants at least five of them to be home games, because college athletics is, you know, a business, and the football program here in Happy Valley covers the cost for the myriad of other sports within Penn State athletics.
If Penn State played Pitt every season, that means Penn State wouldn’t have the opportunity for other home-and-homes. No Virginia Tech. No West Virginia. No Auburn. That would be a bummer.
Penn State has games scheduled with all of those programs, leaving not a lot of real estate to work with. Penn State’s next non-conference opening isn’t until 2021 if not later. That could be sooner than 2030, but the Nittany Lions might like to keep some flexibility.
Of course, Penn State could schedule Pitt if it were a top priority. But it’s not, and PSU coach James Franklin lays out the biggest reason why.
Another day, more Pitt vs. PSU series talk: “If Pitt equals into that equation, wonderful. If they don’t? That’s where my focus is.” pic.twitter.com/ob8AMHPblf— Audrey Snyder (@audsnyder4) May 9, 2018
“If you’re looking at the Pitt-Penn State series as just the Pitt-Penn State series, yeah, it’s been fantastic,” Franklin told reporters on May 9. “It’s been awesome. There’s an excitement. There’s a buzz about it. I think it’s really good for the state of Pennsylvania.”
But Franklin went on:
“I don’t know if it makes a whole lot of sense. Strength of schedule’s a huge part — or was supposed to be a huge part — of the selection committee. That really hasn’t panned out. You wouldn’t necessarily say that after looking at it the last couple years.”
The College Football Playoff selection committee says schedule strength is a big deal. To some extent, it is (just ask 2017 UCF), but in the event’s four-year history, the committee has made clear that the most important thing for a Power 5 team is to not lose games.
“You’ve gotta do everything in your power to be undefeated and to win your conference championship,” Franklin said. “All the other variables, you can’t control them.”
Scheduling Pitt doesn’t help with the going-undefeated thing. Penn State’s been better than its Western Pennsylvanian rival, but in a world where PSU has already decided to schedule teams like Virginia Tech and Auburn, it might be nice to play a mid-major or an FCS team instead of a power-league rival in another spot on the schedule. Plus, Pitt’s not so good right now that it gives a schedule the kind of lift that a team like Auburn does.
Penn State in 2016 was as good a case-in-point as any. The Nittany Lions won the Big Ten, but they’d lost this exact game to Pitt in September. One-loss Ohio State lost in Happy Valley but made the field over PSU, as did a one-loss Washington from a worse conference. Penn State might wish it had scheduled FCS Portland State instead of Pitt.
The Nittany Lions finished one ranking spot out of the Playoff, entirely because of their extra loss. No two-loss team has made the Playoff yet, though Auburn would’ve pulled it off by beating Georgia in the SEC Championship Game in 2017.
Recruiting probably has something to do with Penn State’s rationale, too. Penn State is the dominant recruiter not just in Pennsylvania, but in the whole Mid-Atlantic. The Nittany Lions beat Pitt in head-to-head talent battles more often than the other way around.
As long as Penn State’s winning more games than Pitt and cutting a more imposing national figure, why give the Panthers a chance to build momentum on the trail?
Pitt wants the series to keep happening. So do most college football fans who love rivalry games. So, savor these next two years.
Absent a big shift in the dynamics of the Big Ten, the Playoff committee, or both, Penn State doesn’t have much reason to keep putting Pitt on the schedule.