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College Football Analysis: Should Pitt and Penn State Play on a Yearly Basis?

Penn State coach Bill O’Brien expressed interest last week in playing the Pittsburgh Panthers on a yearly basis. This has opened up interest in the in-state competition which has been dormant since 2000.

Although Pitt is currently on Penn State’s schedule in 2016-2017, O’Brien’s comments echo the desire of many Pennsylvanians—Pitt and PSU fans alike—who want to see the rivalry rekindled every season. Others feel like they’d rather see more diverse scheduling and feel that Penn State has more to lose when playing Pitt (both from a financial point of view and a reputation point of view—as Pitt has been inferior in football for the better part of the past three decades).

I have three ideas going forward that can satisfy both fan bases, while also giving college football back one of its best traditions.

1.  Play 4 out of 6 years. Joe Paterno’s proposal angered Pitt fans for the past decade. He wanted Pitt to play two games in Happy Valley for every one visit by the Nittany Lions to Heinz Field. His rationale? Pitt makes more money off of Penn State coming to town than any other home game, whereas Penn State might do better to schedule an Alabama or Notre Dame. A home-and-home series with Pitt locks PSU into an unequal revenue distribution. 

If PSU/Pitt could agree to a modified two-for-one scheduling scheme, one where Pitt gets to keep all the revenue from one home game at Heinz, Penn State keeps the revenue from two home games at Beaver Stadium, and the two teams split the revenue from another game at Heinz, Penn State would likely agree to such terms. Then, after the four-year contract is up, take two years off. Schedule other out-of-conference foes. But sign another four-year deal to continue the rivalry later. 

Would Pitt agree to this? It still is unequal. Maybe not. But sell-outs are hard to come by for the Panthers, and this would give them two, guaranteed, and more profit than they could come by with any other two home games.

2. Play 2 out of 6 years. Penn State can surely agree to a home-for-home series with Pitt on occasion. Perhaps this very plan is in the long-term plans for PSU. Who knows? With the 2016-2017 series already on the books, maybe the two ADs can re-up the contract again in 2022-2023. This would keep the rivalry alive, while not limiting Penn State’s scheduling in the future at all. Some Big Ten teams will only play PSU twice every five years, so this really does keep Pitt on the Nittany Lion’s radar.

3. Play every year. Before you get too far into this idea, know that it’s very speculative and involves some predictions about where college football is headed. I do not believe that playing every year is likely or even feasible in the current college football landscape. But impending changes in college football could make a yearly PSU/Pitt series possible.

First, TV deals are changing the way conferences are asking their teams to schedule. Look at the Big Ten/Pac-12 match-ups that are slated to start in 2016 or 2017. The conferences know that better games fetch better prices from TV networks, and that extra money—which trickles down to each conference member—may soon trump the revenue of a home game against a sacrificial lamb (like a MAC school or even a FCS foe).

Among other scheduling ideas the Big Ten is batting around is a 9-game conference schedule, which would increase the difficulty of schedules for league teams but would create a more lucrative TV package as well. A longer conference schedule could limit out-of-conference options (like Pitt/PSU).

Obviously, if the Big Ten schedule stays at eight games, then the league could ask its teams to schedule additional difficult teams (on top of the Pac-12 series). Pitt as a yearly foe might give PSU that “name cache” opponent but then still allow the Lions to schedule another formidable foe with a home-for-home series.

Another change—even more sweeping than TV-related ones—might come from the new “4-team playoff” structure. Some leagues—like the SEC—are proposing a straight “top 4” playoff that disregards conference championships. In that scenario, the highest goal would be an inflated record to help get to the top of the polls. But Delany and Larry Scott (Pac-12 commissioner) are voicing support for a conference champ only model. How would this affect scheduling?

Quite simply, a team could schedule a rigorous out-of-conference schedule and perhaps lose a difficult game (like PSU did with Alabama last year or Oregon did with LSU) but still be eligible for the playoffs. In the SEC’s “top 4 only” system, Oregon would have been punished for scheduling LSU, while Stanford (the team they stomped during the season) would have been awarded a playoff spot for scheduling weaker foes.If teams are rewarded for conference championships, we will see a better regular season, with more games for Penn State like Pitt and Alabama and fewer games like Youngstown State and Coastal Carolina because teams won’t be punished for rigorous schedules.

Imagine a future schedule of eight Big Ten games (with blockbusters against Nebraska, Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Michigan), three strong out-of-conference games (Pittsburgh, an elite SEC or Pac-12 team, and a smaller ACC or Big East team), and just one cupcake school. With the right design of our new playoff and the explosion of TV dollars, this could be our happy future as Penn State fans.

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