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Pitt and Penn State should still be an annual rivalry in college football

Labor Day Weekend is on the horizon, and as is tradition, the 2023 FBS college football schedule includes a full slate of games.

The Pitt Panthers open their schedule with a 3:30 kickoff vs. Wofford on Saturday afternoon at Acrisure Stadium. Meanwhile, the Penn State Nittany Lions begin their season with a 7:30 kickoff vs. West Virginia on Saturday evening at Beaver Stadium.

The PSU/WVU game brings back memories. Don’t get me wrong, I hate both football programs, but seeing this traditional rivalry resume after 31 years is nice. If you don’t know geography, the distance between Morgantown, West Virginia (the home of the Mountaineers), and State College, Pennsylvania (the home of the Nittany Lions), is just under 182 miles; you can make it from one place to the other in just under three hours if you’re traveling by car or bus.

I assume most Mountaineer fans who are willing to make the trip to Happy Valley will do so via one of the aforementioned forms of transportation.

As they should.

Most great college football rivalries are regional.

You might ask, “Well, how great was the PSU/WVU rivalry, in the first place?” I don’t blame you for asking that question; the Nittany Lions dominated the series with a 48-9-2 record before both programs went their separate ways in the early ’90s. Ranked No. 7 in the preseason polls and favored by nearly three touchdowns, the Nittany Lions are likely to dominate West Virginia on Saturday night and notch their 49th win in the series.

So what?

Just because a rivalry is one-sided, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be played. I live in Pittsburgh, and I can assure you that there are countless Penn State and West Virginia fans who reside here and all throughout Western Pennsylvania. Many work together. Many live together. Many are related to one another.

That’s just how it is when you have two FBS college football programs located within a three-hour radius of a city the size of Pittsburgh.

Speaking of Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania, it obviously also has plenty of Panthers alums and fans. I’m a huge Pitt fan, which is why I cannot stand West Virginia or Penn State. It’s a healthy sort of hate, however.

Pitt and West Virginia played each other 104 times through the 2011 season in a regional rivalry that was nicknamed the “Backyard Brawl.” (The distance between Pittsburgh and Morgantown is 76 miles by car or bus.)

The Panthers held a 61-40-3 edge in the series history, but the Mountaineers got the better of the play over the final three decades, winning 18 games and tying two between 1983-2011.

How many national titles do the Mountaineers have in football? Zero, but they had a chance to play for one in 2007. All WVU had to do was defeat a 4-7 Pitt team at Mountaineer on December 1 to close out the regular season and all but lock up a spot in the National Championship Game. Instead, the Panthers defeated the second-ranked Mountaineers, 13-9, in the 100th edition of the Backyard Brawl.

The Mountaineers won at least a share of the Big East title seven times after joining the conference in 1993. But thanks to an uptick in conference realignment, West Virginia was forced to defect to the Big 12 in 2012, thus ending the Backyard Brawl–at least temporarily.

Pitt, a member of the Big East since 1991, joined the ACC in 2013.

Pitt and West Virginia actually resumed the Brawl last year, with the Panthers defeating the Mountaineers, 38-31, at Acrisure Stadium. The two rivals will play at Mountaineer Field on September 16 and two more times through 2025.

As for Penn State and West Virginia? They will meet again in 2024, this time in Morgantown.

After that? Nobody knows.

Speaking of which, when will Pitt and Penn State, two football programs that have squared off exactly 100 times, ever play one another again?

Pitt and Penn State were annual rivals through the early ’90s before the Nittany Lions began play in the Big Ten in 1993. The two schools didn’t meet again until 1997 when they began a four-year series through 2000. PSU won the first three matchups before Pitt closed out the series with a 12-0 victory at old Three Rivers Stadium on September 16, 2000.

Pitt and Penn State would not meet again until 2016 when the two programs opened a four-year series through 2019.

Just like the previous four-year series, Penn State won three times to Pitt’s one.

A common theme throughout this article has been conference realignment. Pitt, Penn State and West Virginia spent decades as independents before being forced to join conferences in the early ’90s. Located within a three-hour radius, it seemed like a slam-dunk that all three would join the same conference. Evidently, Joe Paterno, the late, once-great, now-disgraced head coach of the Nittany Lions, was pushing for the schools to form an eastern athletic conference in the early ’80s. However, Pitt rejected the idea before joining the Big East. The Big East then turned down Penn State’s bid to join its conference.

Pitt’s apparent snub of Paterno was rumored to be a sticking point that prevented the two programs from meeting annually after joining separate conferences.

At any rate, a rivalry that was once an annual event for a century has seen eight matchups take place over the past 26 years.

That’s criminal for two programs that are located just 136 miles apart.

Penn State has had a much better time adjusting to life in the Big Ten than Pitt has during its years in both the Big East and ACC. The Nittany Lions haven’t dominated the college football landscape as they did in the 1980s while capturing two national titles in the process, but they’ve more than held their own in the powerful Big Ten Conference.

Pitt, on the other hand, hasn’t finished with less than three losses in a season since 1981 and has only played in three New Year’s Day bowl games since defeating the Georgia Bulldogs in the Sugar Bowl following the ’81 regular season.

There are many younger Penn State supporters who don’t even see the Panthers as anything but another university. If you ask Penn State fans and graduates under the age of 40, they might name schools like Michigan and Ohio State when discussing the program’s top rivals.

As for Pitt? Again, eight matchups against Penn State since 1997, with the Nittany Lions winning six of them.

Besides all of that, Penn State has dominated the series against Pitt since the Paterno era began in 1966. The Nittany Lions had a record of 26-8-1 vs. the Panthers between 1966-2019.

With the Nittany Lions now a bona fide powerhouse in the Big Ten–including four conference titles and several major bowl appearances since the early ’90s–do they even need to resume the Pitt rivalry?

“Pitt needs us more than we need them,” says Penn State fans and alum.

It has been said that Penn State is avoiding Pitt because the program has more to lose by resuming the rivalry than it has to gain; a loss to the Panthers now would be like losing to their little brother and totally humiliating.

So what?

Again, just because a matchup is one-sided, that doesn’t mean it’s not a great rivalry.

There was a time when the Panthers dominated the series by winning 21 games–including 14 in a row–between 1922 and 1951. You might say that was a long time ago, but the 1970s and 1980s are now a long time ago, and who’s to say Pitt can’t become a college football power once more?

The shame of Pitt and Penn State not playing one another these days is that the former has actually become a more stable program under the guidance of head coach Pat Narduzzi and athletic director Heather Lyke.

The Panthers made their first appearance in the ACC Championship Game in 2018. Three years later, with quarterback Kenny Pickett leading the way, Pitt captured its first ACC title with a win over Wake Forest in the championship game. The Panthers took a bit of a step back in 2022 but still managed to win nine games–including the Sun Bowl. Pitt finished in the top 25 for the second-straight season, marking the first time that’s happened for the football program since the 1982 and 1983 campaigns.

The Panthers, now perennial contenders in the ACC’s Coastal Division, look poised to make another run at the conference title in 2023.

Wouldn’t it have been awesome to see Pitt, on the cusp of the top 25 to begin the regular season, take on the seventh-ranked Nittany Lions in a non-conference matchup?

The Panthers could have elevated themselves and also severely damaged Penn State’s chances at a national title in the process.

This is what happened in 2016 when the Panthers upset Penn State, 42-39, at Heinz Field. The Nittany Lions haven’t won a national title since 1986, but they may have qualified for the four-team playoff seven year ago, if not for that opening-week loss to Pitt.

That was the one game the Panthers won in the most recent four-game series between the two stories rivals.

If you’re a Pitt fan, you might look at that 2016 win as a source of pride. I know you have always reveled in the Panthers’ 13-9 victory over West Virginia in 2007 that prevented the Hoopies from playing for a championship.

Despite many Penn State fans insisting that they don’t give a darn about Pitt, they sure do love to bring up 48-14. I’m talking about the Nittany Lions’ blowout win at old Pitt Stadium in 1981 that prevented the top-ranked Panthers from playing for a national championship.

The highlights of this game, complete with images of Pitt cheerleaders crying, introduced me to this rivalry as a nine-year-old. Pitt entered the game undefeated, and I remember looking at the crying cheerleaders and thinking, “What’s the big deal? It’s only one loss.”

But that’s college football, especially in those days when playoffs didn’t exist and there was little margin for error.

Pitt, Penn State and West Virginia are natural rivals that have been torn apart by money, realignment, pride and ego.

To reiterate, most great college football rivalries are based on geography and proximity.

How many natural rivals do the Mountaineers have as members of the Big 12?

As a Pitt fan, I can tell you there really isn’t a team in the ACC that matches the passion I have felt whenever the Panthers have gone against WVU or PSU.

Penn State and its fans have truly been arrogant and dismissive when discussing the return of a yearly rivalry against Pitt and/or West Virginia. I guess it’s hard to blame them. After all, the Big Ten is an ever-growing conference that is becoming more powerful by the day.

Ever-growing or not, it’s hard to name a natural Big Ten rival for the Nittany Lions.

While Nittany Lions fans might gear up for matchups against Michigan and Ohio State, those schools really only have eyes for each other. The game against Michigan State might be huge and include a trophy, but the Spartans probably consider the Wolverines to be their top rivals.

Face it, Pitt, Penn State and West Virginia deserve to be together.

Their fans certainly do.

We can talk about logistics and conference schedules all we want, but if these schools wanted to play one another every year, they could make it happen.

But they don’t, so they won’t.

I have cousins who love Penn State and hate Pitt. I love Pitt and hate Penn State. I could sit here in front of my laptop and scream “West Virginia sucks!” and someone not far from my apartment will likely hear it and be offended (that’s not a bad idea, actually).

So many college football fans get to experience those rivalries that run deep, so deep that the key victories are still bragged about decades later.

Pitt, Penn State and West Virginia are three major college football programs that are in close proximity to one another and should be providing their fans and alumni that kind of passion on an annual basis.

The fact that they don’t is both stupid and tragic.

 

 

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