Penn State fans have long jabbed their Pitt counterparts for the swaths of yellow seats often seen at Heinz Field during Pitt home games, but Beaver Stadium hasn't exactly been packed to the gills lately, either.
Through three games this season, Penn State has yet to break 100,000 in attendance, dropping as low as 93,680 this past week against Temple. Numbers were dipping last season, too, even before the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse case dominated the headlines. The Nittany Lions drew 107,000-plus for the Alabama and Nebraska games, but missed 100,000 in three of the five other home games and didn't draw more than 103,497 for any of them.
NCAA sanctions handed down this past summer could further hinder crowd sizes. Penn State won't be heading to the postseason until at least 2016, meaning the athletic department is going to have to sell a lot of tickets to games without any significant implications past November.
This could prove especially tough during the typically fluffy non-conference portion of the schedule, where games against FCS and low-level FBS teams have become the norm. It's a practice fans could tolerate when playing too difficult a non-conference schedule could significantly damage BCS bowl or national championship aspirations. But what does Penn State have to lose now?
Coach Bill O'Brien has made a habit of saying Penn State's home games over these next few years will act as the team's de facto bowl games. The only way fans are going to buy that, though, is if the program starts scheduling some tougher competition. Getting Pitt on the schedule would be a good place to start.
In the past, Penn State has avoided scheduling Pitt too often because it likes to rotate the marquee opponents on its non-conference schedule, names that have recently included Notre Dame, Syracuse, Alabama and Virginia. The conventional wisdom has been that Penn State doesn't need Pitt to sell tickets to the non-marquee games on its intersectional schedule, and that would probably hold true without the sanctions.
Things are different now, though. Penn State needs to do something to hold its fans' (and perhaps more importantly recruits') interest, and rekindling an ancient rivalry ahead of its scheduled renewal in 2016 and 2017 could go a long way.
Luckily, it appears Penn State acting athletic director David Joyner and Pitt A.D. Steve Pederson have already arrived at this conclusion. The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Scott Brown reported last week that the two plan to meet at some point this season to discuss adding some games. And because of Notre Dame's move to the ACC, we could see the two teams clashing again on the gridiron sooner than later.
Pitt may lose two of the three games it has scheduled with Notre Dame in 2014-16 due to the Fighting Irish’s commitment to play five ACC teams a year beginning in 2014. That could create space on the schedule for Pitt to play Penn State, if the Nittany Lions also have room on their upcoming slates.
Of course, both teams will have their limitations. Now more than ever, Penn State needs the revenue of at least seven home games to fund the rest of its athletic programs after a $60 million fine imposed by the NCAA, and Pitt will be joining an Atlantic Coast Conference that will play a nine-game league schedule, restricting the Panthers to just three out-of-conference dates per year.
If Notre Dame backs out of its games against Pitt in 2014 and 2015, though, it could go a long way helping Pitt and Penn State meet in those years.
In 2014, Penn State currently has Temple, Akron, Rutgers and Massachusetts scheduled, while Pitt is slated to face Notre Dame, Akron, Iowa, Florida International and Delaware. Both schools would probably have to drop opponents to make a game in that year work, although two years out, that remains a possibility.
In 2015, things get a little easier. Penn State has Temple, Buffalo, Rutgers and an open spot on its non-conference schedule while Pitt has Akron, Iowa and Notre Dame. It could work out that neither school would have to drop an opponent to make a game work.
Pederson has made it clear that Pitt is interested, so it would appear the ball is once again in Penn State's court. And given the circumstances, Joyner and co. should act on the possibility.
The Pitt-Penn State rivalry is so deeply rooted in Pennsylvania college football history that it would stir interest even if both teams were terrible. That's the kind of game Penn State needs to be putting on its schedule with years of otherwise irrelevant non-conference football ahead.
Joyner should be looking at other long-time rivals, too, if a deal with Pitt doesn't work. West Virginia and Miami come to mind pretty quickly as foes that could get the buzz going as the Lions navigate the sanctioned season.
The history with Pitt makes it an obvious choice, though. If a deal can be made, Penn State fans will at least have something to look forward to while they wait for a chance to get back on the national stage.