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A Product of Scheduling Demands, End of Penn State-Pitt Series Is a Loss for College Football

by on September 06, 2018 5:00 AM

As Penn State and Pitt clash as rivals for the 99th time, there is no shortage of opinions about whether or not this series should extend beyond next year’s 100th and final scheduled meeting between the two schools. All debate aside, a hard reality likely prevents regularly scheduled future games because of the current Big Ten scheduling model.

What Penn State’s schedule has lacked since joining the Big Ten in 1993 has been that season-ending rivalry game with a long tradition. From 1993 through 2010 Penn State finished against Michigan State, winning 13 of those 18 matchups. Then the Big Ten changed the schedule just as that game was growing bigger and bigger.

But Penn State-Michigan State it never reached the level of outright hatred that Ohio State and Michigan have or that Penn State and Pitt had. Part of what was missing was geographic proximity.

Before joining the Big Ten, Penn State annually played teams like Pitt, West Virginia and Syracuse. Those games are all close drives. In eastern cities where many Penn State alumni lived after graduation, there were also many alumni from those schools. That familiarity created year-round tensions that feed a true rivalry.

So what is keeping Penn State and Pitt from playing each other? The biggest hurdle is the nine-game Big Ten schedule. Big Ten teams have just three non-conference games. In seasons with five conference road games it is vital that you have three home non-conference games for revenue. So it allows you one annual non-conference game against a home-and-home opponent. Penn State is locked up through the 2027 season with West Virginia, Virginia Tech, Auburn and Temple as their marquee home-and-home matchups.

Iowa and Iowa State still do play every year. But that is Iowa’s non-conference home-and-home foe every year. In the 10 seasons from 2006 until 2015 when college football moved to 12 regular season games and the Big Ten had just eight conference games, Iowa played two non-conference games against Power 5 opponents 8 of the 10 seasons. They included four games against Pitt as well as two against Syracuse and two against Arizona. Those extra Power 5 games have been replaced with a Big Ten game.

In the three years since the Big Ten went to nine games, Iowa has balanced the non-conference schedule with home games against teams like North Texas, Wyoming, North Dakota State, Miami (ohio), Northern Illinois and Northern Iowa. The 10 total locked-in games (nine Big Ten and Iowa State) eliminate the ability for them to play a team like Texas or USC if they wanted.

The same would happen at Penn State if they were locked into a home-and-home against Pitt every year.

So how do teams like Florida still play Florida State every year? Both the ACC and SEC play just eight conference games and allow them to play a non-conference game the last weekend of the regular season. Those games sell tickets and create excitement.

On the final weekend those two conferences play four in-state, non-conference rivalry games: Florida-Florida State, Georgia-Georgia Tech, Louisville-Kentucky and Clemson-South Carolina. But there’s more. Only having eight conference games also allowed them to play another Power 5 conference team either in a neutral site opening game or on a home-and-home basis.

Over the past several years, in addition to the season-ending game against South Carolina, Clemson has played Auburn, Notre Dame, Georgia, TCU and this week will play Texas A&M. Florida State has Florida every year but also has played Notre Dame, Alabama, Ole Miss and Oklahoma State. Georgia plays Georgia Tech every year but also has played Notre Dame, UNC, Clemson, Colorado and Arizona State.

Those interesting non-conference matchups give teams a schedule that provides a better gauge of your conference’s and your team’s strength. Yes, the schedule is tougher. But with attendance and ratings stagnant or falling, variety and breaking out of conference games would be a plus for fans. Playing two serious non-conference opponents hasn’t slowed down Clemson or Georgia.

What the Big Ten could do is go back to eight conference games and allow Penn State and Pitt to play the last week of the season every year. If Iowa and Iowa State wanted to move to the last week they could do that as well. If the Big 12 went back to eight conference games, great November games Oklahoma-Nebraska and Texas-Texas A&M could return. That would make for one heck of a final weekend of Thanksgiving football.

In college football tradition matters, passion matters and games like Penn State-Pitt have all of that in a series that dates back to 1893. But until the Big Ten goes back to eight games, those who love a rivalry game like this will have to wait for a long time.

And whether you like the idea of Penn State-Pitt it or not, the disappearance of that game and other traditional rivalries is college football’s loss.


 

 



State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JayPaterno
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