With a 30-27 win over Bowling Green in the Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl capping off the University of Pittsburgh's first winning season since 2010, Panther fans' thoughts have turned to recruiting and signing day. But for Pitt Athletic Director Steve Pederson, thoughts of scheduling out-of-conference opponents should also never be too far out of mind.
When it comes to nonconference scheduling, it's a delicate balancing act that Pederson faces. You can schedule several cupcakes, which should be easy wins, but those games do not entice the casual Pitt or football fan to drive to Heinz Field and buy tickets, meaning less revenue for the athletic department. Schedule too strong a nonconference schedule and you hope the coach you hired has the team ready for those daunting challenges in exchange for the additional revenue and greater national exposure.
Ideally, Pitt would like to have seven home games every year, and that's the case in 2014. Looking at Pitt's 2014 schedule, Iowa is the strongest nonconference foe, which isn't enough to draw thousands of casual football fans to Heinz Field. When Iowa last visited Pitt in 2008, the announced attendance was 50,321; that's a far cry from Heinz Field's capacity of 65,000.
Akron and Delaware are also on the home schedule in 2014, which I would venture to guess will not cause anyone to buy a season ticket.
Every school schedules cupcakes. It's just the way it is. But look at the lengthy list of some out-of-conference opponents Pitt has played in recent years: Akron, Bowling Green, Buffalo, The Citadel, Delaware, Eastern Michigan, Florida International, Gardner-Webb, Grambling, Maine, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Old Dominion, Temple, Toledo and Youngstown State.
Not exactly what one would call a murderer's row of opponents or teams that would elevate Pitt's strength of schedule. As you can see from that list, Pitt has played everyone except The Little Sisters of the Poor.
Furthermore, playing those schools isn't going to draw fans and reduce the complaining about Pitt's lack of attendance and fan support.
The home ACC slate this year also lacks panache, as neither Florida State nor Clemson are on the schedule. Pitt's ACC home schedule this year consists of Duke, Georgia Tech, Syracuse and Virginia Tech.
Virginia Tech may be the best team on the schedule, but there's no novelty to playing a former Big East foe. Pitt has fared well against the nationally respected Hokies in the past, but Virginia Tech lacks the big powerhouse school reputation to cause Heinz Field to be sold out. When Virginia Tech last visited Heinz Field in 2012, the announced attendance was 48,032.
Duke, Georgia Tech and Syracuse are quality opponents with Duke and Georgia Tech at least providing the novelty factor at Heinz Field for Pitt fans. Duke last played at Pitt in 1975, and Georgia Tech's last visit was in 1920.
Prior to 2013, Florida State last played at Pitt in 1983. The novelty of hosting a powerhouse team like Florida State for last season's opening game resulted in the largest crowd of the season and created a greater and more exciting atmosphere for fans, players and recruits instead of seeing more than 20,000 bright yellow empty seats against the likes of Old Dominion or Youngstown State.
Pitt's nonconference opponents haven't all been cupcakes, as the Panthers have hosted some respectable nonconference teams in the past 10 years: Iowa, Michigan State, Navy, Nebraska, Notre Dame and Utah. But that's not enough.
For years Pitt could point to Notre Dame as an esteemed nonconference opponent, and the Panthers have held their own against the Irish in recent years, but Notre Dame will no longer be an annual opponent due to the Fighting Irish's ACC football schedule obligations.
The ideal situation for Pitt is to schedule a home-and-home series with a strong nonconference opponent, one that is close enough for Pitt fans to travel to, and conversely, the opponent's fans travel well and can buy up any remaining tickets that Pitt would have left over to sell. Penn State and Ohio State meet those criteria, as does West Virginia.
Kudos to Pederson as Pitt will once again renew its series with Penn State beginning in 2016. The Panthers last played West Virginia in 2011, with the last home game in 2010. The Backyard Brawl was a game that both fanbases looked forward to every year around Thanksgiving. The games against those teams and Notre Dame historically have drawn Pitt's largest crowds in the past.
Looking beyond 2014, Notre Dame returns to Heinz Field in 2015, as do Miami and Louisville, providing an attractive home schedule with an additional home game yet to be added.
The following two seasons, 2016 and 2017, currently only have 10 games scheduled (five home, five away), with Penn State in 2016 and Oklahoma State in 2017 providing an attractive and marquee school to try to promote the home schedule, particularly long-time rival Penn State.
In 2018 and beyond, openings exist for as many as three nonconference games to be scheduled.
Pederson needs to make another splash by scheduling more marquee out-of-conference opponents in the future.
Ohio State would be ideal in so many ways, particularly with its large, rabid fanbase and the fact that Columbus is approximately a three-hour drive from Pittsburgh. The last time the Buckeyes traveled to Pitt was 1995. Other schools that would draw national interest would be Oklahoma, Texas, USC and Wisconsin. The last time Pitt hosted those schools was 1984, 1994, 1974 and 1937, respectively.
Imagine the build-up of the storyline of head coach Paul Chryst coaching against his alma mater and where he was an assistant coach for so long. One would think Wisconsin owes Pitt since the last time the two schools met was in Madison in 1967.
Shockingly, despite Pitt's rich football history, the Panthers have never hosted Alabama, Auburn, Florida, LSU or Michigan. Scheduling Florida would expose Pitt more to Florida recruits, and the University of Michigan is less than a four-and-a-half-hour drive from Pittsburgh. Pitt has played Michigan twice, both times in Ann Arbor, the last time being in 1947.
There are numerous advantages to playing a big-name nonconference opponent. It generates a preseason buzz and anticipated excitement to the season, increased revenue from increased ticket sales, a greater game-day atmosphere to sell recruits on and increased national exposure which in turn helps recruiting. Also, playing a tough nonconference opponent would prepare Pitt for its ACC schedule more so than playing New Hampshire or New Mexico.
With openings on the home schedule beginning in 2015, Pederson has an opportunity—nay—an obligation to try to take Pitt football to the next level by strengthening the nonconference schedule. It's what's best for Pitt's football program.