For Power Five football teams, non-conference scheduling usually falls into one of four buckets.
There are games that teams schedule against traditional and/or regional rivals. There are games teams play in order to boost their strength of schedule by picking a high-quality opponent. Then there are cupcakes — games they’re expected to win, usually with a payout involved and almost always only scheduled at home. Then there’s the rest — games played against equal or slightly lesser opponents that simply serve to fill the schedule.
So when Ohio State scheduled Oklahoma, Southern Cal scheduled Texas and Alabama played Florida State this year, those teams were hoping to improve their standing in the eyes of the college football playoff committee come selection time.
The problem is that, even for the teams where ending up in the College Football Playoff is a reasonable goal, it rarely works out.
Ohio State was beaten by Oklahoma and probably missed the boat because of it and a loss to Iowa. The No. 2 Sooners probably didn’t need the win over Ohio State to make it. Alabama is in, but with no help from their win over hapless Florida State, which lost its quarterback and had a mediocre year. Southern Cal beat Texas, but was left to the Cotton Bowl after losses to Notre Dame and Washington State.
At the very best, scheduling a high-quality opponent worked out for one of those six teams, and they’re among the most talented football programs in the country.
There are, of course, other reasons to schedule big-name opponents. It’s a chance to get on national television and it usually means a big crowd if it’s a home game.
For Pitt, which missed bowl season for the first time in 10 years thanks to a 5-7 record, the scheduling of Oklahoma State seems to have missed the mark on all fronts. The Panthers were pasted, 59-21 on Sept. 16 after losing a close game in Stillwater in 2016.
This year’s game drew 38,952 fans to Heinz Field, which at that point was the Panthers’ lowest-attended game against a ranked opponent in nearly 10 years.
Pitt’s odds of being in contention for the College Football Playoff on any given year are pretty small, especially when considering that non-conference schedules are done as far as 10 years out. If scheduling Top 25 opponents aren’t going to move the needle attendance-wise for Pitt, there doesn’t seem to be much of any upside to continuing to play them.
It seems as if the Panthers have already started that process. Outside of regional rivals Penn State and West Virginia, Pitt scheduled a two-game series with Tennessee in 2021 and 2022.
But the rest of Pitt’s future non-conference schedules hit far closer to the mark of scheduling winnable games. The Panthers will play UCF in 2018 and 2019, finish a home-and-home with Marshall in 2020 and play Cincinnati in 2023 and 2024.
There’s no shortage of potential opponents that fit into that box. Pitt spent many years in the Big East playing Rutgers and Temple, and has long ties to historical Eastern opponents like Maryland, Navy and Army.
As someone that enjoys watching big-time college football matchups, it’s sad that it’s a reality, but there’s no upside to scheduling the best possible opponents for the Panthers.