Post-Gazette columnist Ron Cook has caught a lot of flak from Pitt fans over the years for all sorts of things. The biggest accusations being that he is a homer for the Big Ten or a Pitt 'hater.'
I normally put little stock into such things. As I've done in the past, I've mentioned when I think media have been wrong, such as when Doug Gottlieb refused to rank Pitt basketball No. 1 in the nation when seemingly everyone else did. But for the most part, I just don't know how much to believe something like the local media having brazen hatred for a team in their City. I'm not saying it can't happen, but Cook is a columnist who's paid to give his opinion. He's entitled to whatever opinion he wants to form. I don't always agree with him, but believe that the criticism he's lobbed in Pitt's direction over the years is sometimes sort of justified.
Pitt fans that aren't in favor of Cook will likely be in for a pleasant surprise in reading his latest article. In it, he says that Pitt has the top outfit of the three local programs.
"The start of college football training camps is less than a month away. Inquiring minds already want to know: What school has the best program: Pitt, Penn State or West Virginia? I’m saying Pitt..."
I think it's pretty close, but to me, Cook's assertion is, for the moment, correct. But while I might consider Pitt slightly ahead of their two rivals, slightly is the key word.
West Virginia and Pitt both played to 8-5 records last year and with West Virginia playing a much more difficult schedule, one might be inclined to believe that what they did was more impressive. But if you dig a little deeper, the Mountaineers (like Pitt did) got fat on beating weak teams. Against the best teams on that schedule, they lost by 20 to Oklahoma, 30 to TCU, and 24 to Baylor. They did take Oklahoma State to overtime, but lost that one as well, and for the most part, was beaten badly by the top teams.
The Mountaineers issue going forward is exactly what I said it would be four years ago when they entered the Big 12. Can they remain competitive in the long term there? Pitt landed in the ACC, and more importantly, the Coastal Division. For the time being, reaching a title game will not be easy, but the Panthers at least have a path forward since they aren't playing Florida State and Clemson every single year. West Virginia, meanwhile, must face the likes of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, TCU, Baylor, Texas, and company, every single season. For them to get through that gauntlet without a strong recruiting base while those programs pluck the finest players in Texas and the surrounding area is a massive hurdle.
West Virginia and Pitt played to the same record last season, but I give Pitt a slight nod because of the Panthers' increased recruiting efforts and the future outlook of the Mountaineers. To that recruiting thing, Pitt topped West Virginia's class last year, according to Rivals and despite what many Panthers fans consider a slow start for 2017, Pitt is currently ahead of West Virginia again ... for now, anyway. And while West Virginia has rebounded from that awful 4-8 disaster in 2013 and has some momentum of its own, I'm not sure that they have much more room for growth in that conference. I thought that it would be difficult for them to gain any traction in the Big 12 when they initially accepted the invitation and still feel the same way today.
The argument against Penn State is a bit more complex, but I have my reasons for picking Pitt there, too. For one thing, Pitt has more momentum right now under Pat Narduzzi. After an endless string of 6-6 regular seasons under Paul Chryst and Todd Graham, Pitt took a step forward in reaching eight last year. Now, like West Virginia, Penn State had more heavyweights on their schedule. But the Nittany Lions also had a problem in perception with the loss to Temple. While the Owls were a good team last year, that loss on paper just looks horrible - not only because Temple has been down for so long but also because the game wasn't even close as Penn State lost 27-10.
That perception issue goes far beyond that loss, of course. Penn State still continues to dodge questions about the Sandusky scandal and recently, more allegations reared their ugly heads in May. Penn State wants the nation to move on but in reality, I'm not sure when exactly that will happen. The university still has a cloud over it from that mess and that continues to hurt the program.
I'd also add that James Franklin isn't inspiring much optimism right now with his work on the field, either. The Nittany Lions have been in a similar funk that Pitt was in before last season with a string of modest seasons, not winning more than seven games until 2012 (and even that was a season that saw them lose to Ohio and Virginia). The thing the head coach has going for him is that he continues to recruit very well. Penn State had Rivals top 25 classes in 2014, 2015, and 2016, and there's no doubt that, despite Pitt's increased efforts on the recruiting front, that the Nittany Lions are still ahead of them in that respect.
But as mentioned, Franklin's bigger program is that that recruiting, so far, hasn't paid off on the field. Obviously it's still too early to tell and perhaps, they are turning the corner and Penn State sees better results on the field this year from those three strong classes. But for now, Vegas doesn't see it that way for this season and promptly installed Pitt as nine-point favorites in their game this fall. Keep in mind, that spread came out before James Conner's announcement that he was cancer-free and ready to play this year. As I mentioned at the time, that seemed high to me. But even if it is, the very real fact is that it goes back to Penn State's perception, which right now isn't all that high while Pitt has a bit of momentum going for it.
That Franklin was able to win more games at unknown Vanderbilt in the SEC than he is at Penn State in the Big Ten is alarming - sanctions or not. He's obviously proven to be a very good coach from his days at Vandy and his recruiting prowess, but at some point, he has to translate it into more wins.
As I said early in this article, to me, the difference between these three programs is pretty negligible. This shouldn't be any sort of boasting point for Pitt here as they need to get beyond eight wins and start competing for ACC title game appearances. I'm inclined to say that Pitt is currently in the best shape right now, but maybe that changes by the end of this season. However, the momentum Pitt has on its side is palpable and Cook's opinion is correct in my eyes.