Let’s face it Penn State fans- we do not have a true rival. After 23 seasons of Big Ten play, Penn State just doesn’t have the team where both fanbases circle the calendar and share the same amount of enthusiastic hatred to view it as "the game" that will make or break a season.
Trust us, we’ve tried. There have been great efforts, both internally and externally, for Penn State to develop a rivalry, to no avail. Sure, we’ve developed nice little rivalries with Ohio State and Michigan, but forever and always, they will have each other as the one game that matters more than the others, and often has the ability to define a season (as well as careers and legacies) in 60 minutes every late November. To us, they may be our rivals. In their eyes, Penn State is nothing more than a "big game" most years. With the current state of the Buckeyes and Wolverines, their game against the Nittany Lions becomes even less significant.
We’ve also found ourselves on the reverse end of this with Rutgers and Maryland joining the Big Ten. While both conference newbies have shouted their hatred of Penn State from the rooftops, they have mostly been met with indifference from the Nittany Lions. They claim to be our rivals, while we shrug it off and focus on other games throughout the schedule. Maryland either went as far as to refuse to shake hands and start a pre-game brawl in 2014, but only embarrassed themselves in an attempt to anoint the rivalry.
The Big Ten found it wise to schedule Penn State and Michigan State on the final week of the regular season and making the contest a trophy game. Despite some memorable contests, it went nowhere. Nebraska seemed to finally be the answer- prior to the addition of Maryland and Rutgers, the Nittany Lions and Cornhuskers where the two recent additions that didn’t have the same history as their conference-mates had with one another. They also had history, as both teams felt the other "stole" a national championship in the past decades. Things started working out on the field as well, with Nebraska winning three close, hard-fought emotional contests. There was controversy surrounding the 2011 and 2012 contests, and dare I say, even some mutual respect built between the program and fanbases. Then the divisions were re-aligned, denying the programs the familiarity of an annual contest needed to build and maintain a true rivalry.
All of these attempts have failed because of one simple truth- true rivalries cannot be manufactured. It takes time, competition, and a ruined season or two for it to be developed. All the trophies and message board rants in the world won’t change that.
Now after 16 years, Penn State’s biggest in-state foe and one-time bitter rival returns to the schedule. But picking a rivalry back off the ground isn’t so easy.
First off, an entire generation of Penn State fans have no memories of the two teams meeting on the field. As far as they know, Pitt shares proximity with Penn State, but not much else. Further complicating things is the fact that Penn State reeled off seven consecutive victories from 1989-1999, meaning you have to be old enough to remember most of the ‘80s to experience the last time there was a relevant set of games between the two programs. Pitt fans love to bring up the 12-0 shutout from the last time the two met on the field, but you won’t find any Penn State fans shedding tears over that particular loss from a forgettable 5-7 season that ultimately kicked off the Dark Years.
To develop a true rivalry, the programs must re-develop a sense of familiarity with one another. Both teams have high hopes to develop into contenders during the next few years, which could produce some interesting and intense match-ups during the course of the four-year deal that has the teams meeting annually through 2019. Just imagine an early season match-up with both teams in the top 10 in another couple years- Nittany Lions fans young and old would quickly develop strong feelings after a long spell of barely noticing the Panthers outside the occasional recruiting battle.
If both athletic departments can come together and find a way to keep the teams playing on an annual basis, the "Keystone Classic" could once again develop into something special. The current deal runs out in 2020. Currently, Penn State’s only non-conference game will be at Virginia Tech. Pitt has 2020 non-conference games against Richmond and at Marshall, and would likely jump at the chance add a longtime deal with Penn State (just think what the match-up is doing for their ticket sales, as many Penn State fans now have Pitt season tickets they would love to get off their hands) Will Penn State want to add another ACC opponent, or will they prefer to expand their blueprint with home-and-home series by playing teams from other regions of the country? If the four-team playoff and nine-game Big Ten schedule still exist, they may want to fill up the other two slots with the Kent States and Idahos of the college football world. Until any formal announcement is made, it’s anyone’s guess.
It’s obvious Pitt wants nothing more than to see Penn State on its schedule each fall. The ball is clearly in Penn State’s court for the series to occur on either an annual or regular basis.
After more than two decades, maybe it’s finally time to invest on that one true rival that’s been lacking for far too long.