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Pitt football’s non-conference schedule again toughest in the country, per ESPN

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

It’s the college football offseason and Pitt again finds itself in a familiar position. No, the games haven’t already started. But the Panthers’ non-conference schedule is again being critiqued or praised, depending on who you talk to.

As they do every year, ESPN recently rated the non-conference schedules of college football teams and Pitt not only drew a lot of recognition but finished on top. That, of course, happened last year, too, as the team’s out of conference games included contests against Penn State and Oklahoma State, landing Pitt at No. 1.

The argument, as it has been these past few years when the schedule has been exceedingly difficult is, is it worth it?

Not really. And, keep in mind, there are also other factors at play here, such as selling tickets (I’ll get to that). But here’s the thing.

Complaining about Pitt’s scheduling this year in particular wouldn’t make much sense. First, they have a game against Notre Dame. The Irish are rotated in the conference as part of their deal with the ACC and this just happens to be the Panthers’ year to face them. There’s nothing they can do about that game.

Additionally, the other big fish on the schedule is Penn State. And frankly, I don’t care how tough that game is - Pitt should (and would) take it every year if they could because it’s a rivalry. Penn State feels differently about it but it’s a game the Panthers had tried to get back ever since the series ended in 2000. Regardless of who else is on the schedule, you take that game as often as you can.

This year winds up being particularly brutal because few would have anticipated UCF being as good as they were/are at the time the game was scheduled in January of last year. That gives Pitt three teams that are in ESPN’s early Top 25. Their other non-conference game is the opener, which will be against Albany.

My stance on this has always been pretty clear. I’d prefer to see Pitt schedule down and build up the program first. Once you consistently are winning nine and ten games a year, then you can begin playing tougher teams. A perfect schedule for me would consist of either Penn State/ND/WVU combined with two weak programs and one P5 bottom feeder like Indiana or something. Do I want that forever? Nah. But until Pitt is seeing itself more regularly in the Top 25 and can build some momentum, it makes the most sense.

Think about it. Pitt is a middling P5 team these days. In what universe would it make any degree of sense for them to be playing the toughest non-conference schedule two seasons in a row?

I get it - fans want to see Pitt face good teams. But at the end of the day, playing the best teams and perpetually winning 6-8 games a year is not all that helpful to long-term growth. There’s no real progress to be made there and it’s sort of like a chicken-egg scenario. To beat the better teams consistently, you need better players. And one of the best ways to get those better players is by routinely being ranked, which means winning games.

There’s a reason kids trip over themselves for the opportunity to play at Alabama and it’s not because Tuscaloosa is an entertainment destination, folks.

The argument I’ve often heard is ‘I’d rather see Pitt go 7-5 against the best teams instead of going 9-3 with a weak schedule.’ While I can understand that line of thinking a little, the fact is that the 9-3 season, regardless of the opponents, is what better helps the program long term and puts them in a better position.

Sure, Pitt fans remember the big wins against Clemson, Penn State, and Miami over the past two years. That’s not to downgrade those wins, which were incredibly exciting. But those are exceptions. Look at those years as a whole. Eight-win seasons are nice but they don’t really matter unless you use them as a springboard to win nine, ten, or eleven. What Pitt really needs to do, as I’ve argued for over a decade now, is win more games first to draw more national recognition and then schedule more difficult when the roster can handle it.

Pitt gets national credit for those big wins, obviously. But, unless it’s a game that has real playoff ramifications, it’s essentially out of the spotlight within a week from a national standpoint. Winning nine or ten games repeatedly is what establishes programs and gets them consistent national recognition - not pulling off a random upset in an 8-5 or, worse, 5-7 season. Don’t believe me? Ask any non-Pitt fan about the national perception of the Panthers. It’s sure to be more ‘meh’ than overly positive.

Finally, don’t forget that the overall argument is really not as simple as ‘Just schedule weak teams.’ Why?

Because Pitt needs to sell tickets.

Win or lose, there’s still money to be made and, frankly, the Panthers are in a better position to make it by scheduling up rather than down. And after some of the embarrassing scenes of poor crowd sizes, bringing in top opponents is one panacea of sorts for that. My counter to that, I suppose, would be that the best way to increase crowd sizes over the long term is by building a brand about which fans are enthusiastic. And the obvious best way to do that, of course, is by winning - regardless of who in particular you are beating.

All of that said, this year is kind of an outlier as Pitt got the Penn State series and then had the Notre Dame rotation come up all while Central Florida is expected to again be a good team. There’s just nothing that can be done about that. While my philosophy remains the same, blaming the administration for the scheduling this season doesn’t make any sense.

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