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On Scheduling Pitt, and Why A Compromise is Needed

Penn State and Pitt draw enough interest from fans that it should still be played, even if not all the time.

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Penn State Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Now that two of the four scheduled games between Pitt and Penn State have been played, there is enough data to have informed opinions on what should happen in the future. Some folks are on the “keep playing Pitt” train, believing that the history of the series is important. Others are on the “play anyone but Pitt” side, believing that the Panthers don’t bring any value to the Nittany Lions in the long term. I, personally, stand right in the middle, in the belief that while Pitt is not as attractive an opponent as, say, Auburn, they don’t actually hurt Penn State in any meaningful way.

Specifically speaking, one popular argument against playing Pitt every season focuses on the idea that Penn State is in a lose-lose situation: If the Nittany Lions beat Pitt, their profile won’t be raised that drastically because the Panthers aren’t normally expected to compete for conference championships and New Year’s Six bowls. Meanwhile, if Penn State manages to lose to said Pitt team, like they did in 2016, they risk missing on the playoff altogether due to a bad loss on their resume.

What’s inherently missing from this argument though is that Pitt in an of itself has yet to cost Penn State a spot in the playoff. What has doomed the Nittany Lions in the past two seasons has been losing. Had Penn State played one of its more interesting future opponents, say Auburn, last season, they would still be out of the playoff if they lost that game. Alternatively, had they actually beat said Pitt team last season, they would have been in. Likewise this season, having Auburn, Virginia Tech, West Virginia, or any other high profile opponent on the schedule wouldn’t have saved Penn State from knocking itself off the playoff by losing two games. Case in point, one of the teams that made the playoff over Penn State last season, Washington, had a much worse Rutgers team on their non-conference schedule. Fix the losing, and the playoff part will take care of itself.

The other popular argument against playing Pitt is that there really isn’t any interest in the series. Yet, there seems to be a disconnect with the views online and what’s happening on the field. Last season, Penn State fans singlehandedly put Pitt’s program in the black by buying up season tickets to go to just one game. This season, the Pitt game drew 109,898 fans to the game. That’s the eighth largest crowd in Beaver Stadium history, 236 fans below the number 3 game on the list. If there is little interest in the series, why does game attendance say otherwise?

With those two arguments out of the way, we are left with one I wholeheartedly agree with: Having Pitt on the schedule every year decreases the likelihood of variety in Penn State’s non-conference slate. To solve for this issue, I am proposing a compromise. But before we can get there, let's establish some realistic assumptions:

  1. Penn State won't give up the revenue of 7 home games a year.
  2. Penn State is not in a hurry to join the neutral site game craze.

I emphasized revenue above, because it’s important. If the athletic department is able to balance the books without needing to play seven or more home games a season, they would be more willing to do things outside of the box. That brings us to the neutral site game point. Financially, neutral site games are starting to rival home games in many cases, when factoring in the payouts these games give out minus the costs associated with having a home game (especially if that home game is against a sacrifice opponent). Assuming that they won't do neutral site games anytime soon, we're left with home and home games for the foreseeable future. Given that, we have some more reasonable assumptions:

  1. We can't predict how good (or bad) teams will be four, five, 10 years in advance, when these games are scheduled.
  2. Penn State won't be able to schedule a top 10 opponent or big brand, let alone a power 5 team, every year.

With those four basic assumptions out of the way, here are a few options that reach a level of compromise.

Play 2 Power 5 opponents in a season.

After perusing some future schedules for Power 5 teams with 9-game conference schedules, we have the following:

  • Ohio State is playing Oregon State and TCU in 2018, plus Notre Dame and Texas in 2022 and 2023.
  • Michigan plays Washington and Virginia Tech in 2020 and 2021.
  • Wisconsin plays Syracuse and Notre Dame in 2020 and 2021
  • Texas plays Maryland and USC in 2018
  • West Virginia plays Tennessee and NC State in 2018, Missouri and NC State in 2019, Florida State and Maryland in 2020, Maryland and Virginia Tech in 2021, Pitt and Virginia Tech in 2022, and Penn State Pitt in 2023 and 2024. That’s two Power 5 opponents every season through 2024.
  • Colorado plays Texas A&M and Minnesota in 2021, TCU and Minnesota in 2022, TCU and Nebraska in 2023, Georgia Tech and Northwestern in 2026, and Northwestern and Kansas State in 2027.
  • Stanford and USC, by virtue of playing Notre Dame every season, play two Power 5 opponents almost every year.

Three Big Ten teams play two Power 5 opponents in future schedules, two Big 12 teams do so as well, and three teams in the Pac-12 join in. If the teams above can handle playing two Power 5 opponents once in a while (or every year, as is the case in some of the above), then the Nittany Lions can handle two Power 5 opponents in a season too.

Penn State can slot Pitt in 2023 and 2024 when they play West Virginia. Neither of those teams are likely to move the needle on their own based on history (and are likely wins based on trajectory), but both together give Penn State a strong case for inclusion in the playoff. Since Penn State is seemingly intent on losing two games per season, what would the committee do with a two loss conference champion who played 11 of its 12 games against Power 5 opponents? Would they be left out, like Stanford was in 2015, or would they get an extra boost?

Fill the gaps with Pitt.

Since they won't be able to get a strong P5 opponent every year (aforementioned Ohio State couldn't for 2019, when they play no Power 5 teams out of conference), then use Pitt as the P5 opponent in those years. They have one through 2025 so far, but if they can't find anything for 2026 through 2030, for example, that can be another series with Pitt. That guarantees a P5 opponent every season. And, if they find someone after the fact (like, if Virginia finally decides to give Penn State the return that is owed to them), slot them right in and either move one of the Pitt games or put the big girl pants on and play them both.

Penn State, in realistic terms, will not renew a yearly series with Pitt in the foreseeable future. If the Nittany Lions are to play the Panthers with any sort of regularity, it will be in its current form: agree to a limited series, then take a few years off in between to play other opponents. The athletic department can make it work, and if the past two games are any indication, it’s financially beneficial to do so. The outlined compromises above are only two possible solutions, but they accomplish what the majority of the fans want to see.