Penn State Deserves A Better Rival Than Pitt
Almost two years ago to date, I laid out some pretty strong opinions about my in-state school ahead of its first Big Ten game against the Nittany Lions. It got some equally strong reactions, and once again, Penn State found itself in the middle of an “are Penn State and [enter college name here] rivals?” discussion. I think at this point, having seen all the hype for Saturday’s clash with Pitt, it’s pretty clear that this game is not just another Saturday. In my four years, I have never seen this amount of mutual trash talk between fan bases, nor have I ever seen students so invested in getting to a game played away from Beaver Stadium — or even in Beaver Stadium for that matter. This seems to be the rivalry for Penn State.
And yet, I feel very little. I think, aside from the western PA crowd, a lot of people share my sentiment — even if they engage in all the pre-game chatter with our comrades to the west. Because at the end of the day, Pitt simply has not been relevant to Penn State for a long time.
Before I continue, let me make one thing clear: I am not opposed to Pitt playing the role of Penn State’s primary rival in the future. As the closest major university to State College, a fellow Pennsylvania state school, and a plethora of students with mutual friends, the potential is there.
But right now, any rivalry with Pitt feels one-sided. Let’s face it, despite success last year, Pitt is not a formidable football program. From 2011-2015 — the beginning to the end of the Sanctions Era — Pitt had three losing seasons and two winning seasons. Even then, facing the toughest penalties in sports history, the Nittany Lions never fell below .500. Sure, you could argue that the only thing that matters is the result this weekend, but the fact that Pitt couldn’t muster a winning season in the Big East — a football conference so weak it no longer exists — the same year Penn State won eight games in the Big Ten makes a Pitt win feel like more an anomaly than “winning a rivalry.”
And though a 50-42-4 record seems competitive, the past 12 contests have seen nine Nittany Lion wins, including seven straight from 1989-1999. For perspective, the Penn State-Ohio State “rivalry” has never seen a team win more than four straight games. This six-year drought of Penn State closing the season unranked is the largest since 1936-1941 — when the AP poll started. Pitt? They haven’t finished consecutive seasons ranked since 1982 and 1983.
Again, while history isn’t everything, to be at a school like Penn State (which has only had five losing seasons since WWII) and to play a team with five losing seasons since 2005, makes it feel like a win this week would be par for the course and a loss, while embarrassing, would do nothing to prove Pitt is the better program. And when it comes down to it isn’t that what great rivalries are about? Sure, each game is meaningful, and oftentimes they have extreme implications, but think of the truly great rivalries: Ohio State-Michigan, Oklahoma-Texas, Alabama-Auburn. Teams so ingrained in college football that even on their off years, these match-ups gain national attention, and each game feels less like a fight to see which team is better and more like a match to determine which program, with all its history, is the dominant one.
When the series was competitive in the late 1970s and 1980s and each game consistently had national implications, I’m sure it felt this way. But even with a loss, it feels almost foolish to think that a team who can’t even consistently fill up its stadium in an age when football is more popular than ever is the dominant program.
Another dead giveaway about the quality of the rivalry is the fact that there are only four games scheduled, and it doesn’t look like that will change anytime soon. Granted, Penn State has been the side most resistant to scheduling the game going forward, but can you blame us? Given the lack of any real, consistent success at Pitt over the last 20 years, playing the game annually makes little sense for the Nittany Lions. A win and you get psuedo-bragging rights over a team you should probably beat anyway. At best you impress a few people. But a loss? You only have to look back one year to see the damage done by losing to a team you’ve historically had your way with. The upside of winning is dwarfed by the downside of losing. The thrill of victory doesn’t feel half as good as the relief that comes from not losing. It’s the reason few people consider us to be rivals with Rutgers, Maryland, and, even after last year, Temple.
The great tragedy of all this, however, is how great this game could be. Had Pitt not dramatically fallen out of college football’s elite group in the late 80s and early 90s, this game could rival some of the classic rivalries. Imagine it: two in-state rivals, who have played since 1893, both consistently toward the top of the polls fighting for supremacy every year. In a different world, who knows, maybe Pitt stays an upper-echelon team, continues this series, and maybe even ends up in the Big Ten after the Big East collapses. Instead, we have a four-game series, 16 years removed from its last contest. We still need to have arguments over which team is our true rival — an in-state school with a rich history versus a handful of other teams from other states. Instead of “The Iron Bowl,” “The Big Game,” or “The Red River Rivalry,” we get “The Keystone Classic Sponsored By People’s Natural Gas,” a game so apparently irrelevant, neither school had a problem selling out their “rivalry,” with an awful, inorganic name for a little money.
Instead of a rivalry against a blue-blood team, we get Pitt.