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Pitt-Penn State returns after lengthy absence

The Panthers will square off against the Nittany Lions on Saturday

NCAA Football: Villanova at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Pitt and Penn State last played in 2000. Now, 16 years later, the rivalry is renewed.

Sure, it's got a sponsored name and logo now. Sure, the players on both sides were in most cases too young to remember anything from the last game. And sure, the coaches from that 2000 contest are both long gone.

But it's still Pitt-Penn State.

I'll listen to the argument that the game isn't a rivalry game right now. After all, when you go nearly two decades since playing, it lessens things to some degree. Since that time, Penn State has been playing the likes of Ohio State, Michigan, and others in the Big Ten. In the meantime, Pitt focused on the Backyard Brawl with West Virginia until that series disbanded. The Panthers have changed conferences and have also been playing former Big East rivals, such as Virginia Tech, while also still regularly facing Notre Dame.

Both programs have moved on, to say the least. But if you don't think the game means much, I'd encourage you to think again.

The two programs haven't played on the field in some time but you wouldn't think that from the actions of relatively new head coaches in Pat Narduzzi and James Franklin. The two coaching staffs have sparred on Twitter, fought for recruits, and taken subtle jabs against each other. Photo ops that wouldn't typically draw much attention have blown up with fans. And even former Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt has ribbed Franklin a bit in his new job as a commentator.

Back in May, Pitt was announced by Vegas to be not only favored in the game, but by more than a touchdown. That set off another strong reaction from Penn State fans and the arguments started all over again.

Fast forward to this season when tickets went on sale. The Panthers have sold out of their season tickets for the year and obviously, the Penn State game had quite a bit to do with that. With the new capacity at Heinz Field, Pitt also set a new record for ticket sales. The reaction? The two fan bases have even bickered over just how many Nittany Lions fans will be in attendance for that contest.

Those tickets, by the way, are a hot commodity. On StubHub, standing room only tickets are selling in the $100 - $175 range. Contrast that to Pitt tickets for other non-conference games, which can often be had in the upper deck (with a seat and everything) for as little as $10. Even tickets against significantly better teams can usually be purchased for only a little more simply because the Panthers rarely sell out games.

This rivalry clearly means a lot to fans on both sides and to say otherwise is the height of insanity.

There's national attention, too. Neither team is likely to be a championship contender for even their own conference this season (Sorry, Pitt fans - the ACC seems out of reach right now) but the game was quickly picked up by ESPN for broadcasting to a national audience. And for now, neither is even ranked. Plus, as ESPN said earlier this year, much is on the line for both programs. It's clear that this rivalry, while on pause, has not been forgotten.

Finally, on a recruiting level, the game is huge. The Panthers need to make up ground against Penn State in the battle for both kids and while a loss Saturday wouldn't deal a fatal blow to Narduzzi's recruiting, it wouldn't help matters. Pitt needs to win a game like this to make selling the coach's vision a bit easier.

I've always been on the side that said this is a game that should be played every year. Sure, West Virginia is a key rival for Pitt but I believe that Penn State tops even that. That, by the way, is a sentiment that's been echoed over and over again by athletics director Scott Barnes, who has always said the top priority for Pitt is to play Penn State whenever possible. Now, the Nittany Lions are in no rush to line up against the Panthers. Currently, they haven't expressed much desire in extending the series beyond the four games under contract.

But to me, it's important for both sides. In the Big Ten, Penn State is really without a top rival with Michigan's and Ohio State's concentration fixed on each other. Now, I'll let the Penn State fans talk up the program's 'recent' dominance in the series. But my response would be that playing Pitt means a lot more than facing the likes of Temple, Toledo, etc. - at least it should. Similarly, playing Penn State over teams like Villanova and Florida International is a more attractive proposition for Pitt.

The benefit to the Panthers is a little more clear cut. Not only does Penn State give them a prime rivalry game, but a game against the Nittany Lions, as we've seen this year, fixes an abundance of ticket sales woes. Pitt still needs to entice fans to show up when the team isn't winning but having Penn State on the home schedule should equate to a season ticket sellout every year. As I covered at length in the past, winning more games does wonders for Pitt's ticket sales. Fans may not particularly want to hear that, but it's the reality of the situation. And Pitt starts winning more, having a home game against Penn State is the next best remedy for that problem.

Beyond all of that, it's a big rivalry game which fans of both sides can benefit from. From the standpoint of both teams, it means a lot when neither team is highly regarded. If you're not going to be compete for a title, you might as well give fans as many reasons to stay engaged as possible. A 6-6 team might have a hard time keeping fans interested. But if you add a rivalry game to that mix, suddenly, there's a bit more there.

Plus, I find it difficult to believe that fans of both sides would rather face another FBS opponent with no ties to the program (or worse yet, an FCS team) than play their rival. The questions about 8-game vs. 9-game conference schedules are there and I also understand the desire for a few tune-up games before the conference play gets underway. But if there's one game that should be repeated on an annual basis, it's probably this one.

If the Nittany Lions are unwilling to oblige, at the very least, some sort of rotation that would enable Pitt to play either Penn State or West Virginia every season would be just as nice.

It's been a long time since these teams have played but it's clear that there's not much love lost. Despite what Penn State athletics director Sandy Barbour may argue, rivalry games are what college football is about.

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