Saturday night marked the last meeting at Heinz Field between Pitt and Penn State under their current agreement. Next year’s game in Happy Valley will be the final game of the agreement, and many do not foresee the two teams meeting again in the near future. During the broadcast, the ESPN commentators did a surprisingly good job distilling the key factors in what is preventing the rivalry from continuing. In short, both sides are to blame and the disputed issues are not recent developments.
On Pitt’s side, the broadcasters quoted Athletic Director Heather Lyke’s statement that Pitt needs to have seven home football games per year in order to raise enough revenue to sustain the other sports in the university. Using the high-revenue sports of football and basketball to finance other sports is a very common model in collegiate athletics. However, mandating seven home football games is a limiting factor. The seven home game mandate gives Pitt scheduling inflexibility that they are not able to overcome. On the flip side, Penn State’s demand for years in the rivalry has been a “two-for-one” deal. This would give Penn State two games against Pitt in Happy Valley for each one game at Heinz Field. The interest here for Penn State is that regardless of their opponent (whether it be Pitt, Appalachain State, or Akron) they can sell over 110,000 tickets in Beaver Stadium. Pitt has a smaller stadium that they struggle to fill against non-marquee opponents while Penn State can fill their stadium regardless of opponent.
Digging deeper into Pitt’s “seven home game” mandate, it severely limits their abilities in non-conference scheduling. The ACC plays 8 conference games per year (4 home games and 4 road games) and has an agreement with Notre Dame to play 5 ACC teams per year through 2037. In a 12-game college football schedule, with 8 games taken up by conference play, this leaves 4 non-conference opponents for teams to schedule on their own. Since only 4 of the 8 conference games are at home, Pitt has to schedule 3 of their 4 non-conference games at home in order to meet their self-imposed “seven home game” requirement.
This means Pitt can only afford to schedule one road non-conference game per year, making a two-for-one with Penn State out of the question. Pitt has been able to secure “home-and-home” agreements in offset years with Cincinnati, West Virginia, and Wisconsin moving forward. These offset agreements allow Pitt to have a home game against one of them and a road game against another in the same season, improving their overall strength of schedule. If Pitt was locked in to two road games against Penn State, it would limit their ability to make these type of agreements.
Looking ahead at Pitt’s future non-conference opponents, they already have their one road opponent booked for 7 of the next 8 years. Over the next decade, Pitt only has 3 years where their one road opponent is not yet decided.
Pitt Future Non-Conference Opponents
2019: Delaware, Ohio, at Penn State, UCF
2020: Miami (OH), Richmond, at Marshall, Notre Dame
2021: at Tennessee
2022: West Virginia, Tennessee
2023: Cincinnati, at West Virginia
2024: at Cincinnati, West Virginia
2025: at West Virginia
2026: at Wisconsin
2028: Notre Dame
It is worth noting that Pitt also has scheduled home games against Notre Dame in 2031 and 2034 and road games at Notre Dame in 2033 and 2036. Looking at the short-term capacity within Pitt’s schedule, the majority of their “open” slots to add can only be used on home games. If Pitt does not alter their self-imposed “seven home game” mandate, their future opponents will have to conform to the following requirements:
Pitt Open Schedule Slots
2019 & 2020: Full
2021: 3 home games
2022: 1 home game, 1 away game
2023: 2 home games
2024: 2 home games
2025: 3 home games
2026: 3 home games
2027: 2 home games, 1 away game
2028: 2 home games, 1 away game
As you can see, Pitt does not have the ability, at least within the next 8 years, to add more than one more “home-and-home” arrangement. The one additional arrangement would have to have a 2022 road game and would require a home game in either 2021 or 2023. However, this is where Penn State’s own restrictions creates a rub. The Big Ten plays 9 conference games as opposed to the 8 that are played in the ACC. This means that in alternating years, Penn State either has 4 or 5 road games in conference play. The Nittany Lions also want to maximize the revenue their football program can generates, which means loading as many home games into their schedule as possible.
In years when Penn State has 5 road games in conference play, they will look to also have 7 home games by scheduling all 3 of their non-conference opponents in Beaver Stadium. In the alternating years when Penn State has only 4 conference road games, they have the capacity to schedule a road non-conference game. Looking ahead at Penn State’s future opponents shows this trend. Penn State’s schedule has 5 Big Ten road games in odd-numbered years and only 4 conference road games in even-numbered years.
Penn State Future Non-Conference Opponents
2019: Idaho, Buffalo, Pitt
2020: Nevada, at Virginia Tech, San Jose St
2021: Ball State, Auburn, Villanova
2022: at Auburn, Central Michigan
2023: West Virginia, Delaware
2024: at West Virginia, Bowling Green
2025: Virginia Tech, Villanova
2026: at Temple
2027: Delaware, Temple
It is worth noting that the Big Ten football opponents have not yet been released for the 2024-2027 seasons, but it is safe to assume that the trend of 9 conference games with the current home and road split will continue. This leaves Penn State with similarly limited options for future scheduling of opponents.
Penn State Open Schedule Slots
2022: 1 home game
2023: 1 home game
2024: 1 home game
2025: 1 home game
2026: 2 home games
2027: 1 home game
If the current Big Ten trend of scheduling Penn State with 5 road conference games in odd-numbered years continues, and Penn State continues their past practice of seven home games, they have no capacity to add any road games to their schedule for the next decade. Penn State’s desire for a “two-for-one” agreement also springs from the structure of their conference scheduling where they can only add one road opponent in even-numbered years and all of those for the next decade are spoken for. Penn State did have an open road date in 2026 that they recently filled via an agreement with Temple to play in Philadelphia in 2026 with a return game in State College in 2027. These dates coincide with Pitt’s previously signed agreement with Wisconsin, another Big Ten school.
As stated at the outset, both schools can be placed at fault here. Conference scheduling is also a limiting factor. Based on the available information, the soonest feasible date the series could resume would be 2027, but only if Pitt would be willing to play in Happy Valley that year and if Penn State was willing to have a one-for-one agreement rather than a two-for-one deal. Under the current 4-year agreement, Pitt got the first game of the deal at home. If Pitt demanded the first game of a future agreement at Heinz Field, the soonest the series could restart would be 2028, a nine-year hiatus in the rivalry. At this point neither side appears to be willing to budge in their negotiations which could lead to an even longer amount of time before the two schools face off on the gridiron.
Header image from SI.com