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Penn State-Pitt rivalry on the verge of exploding

Penn State's LaVar Arington (11) and Pittsburgh's D.J. Dinkins (1) are separated by an unidentified official as Pitt's Greg DeBolt, right, watches in the first quarter Saturday, Sept. 11, 1999 in State College, Pa. Two personal fouls were called during the confrontation which followed a Pittsburgh punt, and Penn State was penalized 30 yards. (AP Photo/ George Widman)
George Widman/AP photo

The football rivalry between Penn State and Pittsburgh has a tumultuous, on-again, off-again history. But after a season in which both teams finished feeling as though they were oh, so close to something huge, the 2017 installment could be one of biggest games ever in the series that dates back to 1893.

Last season’s 42-39 loss to Pitt probably wound up being the difference between the Rose Bowl and the College Football Playoff for the Nittany Lions. The Panthers had gigantic wins against Penn State and eventual national champion Clemson. But heartbreaking losses to North Carolina and Virginia Tech counterbalanced those results, and the Panthers struggled to find consistency.

The teams meet again, for the 98th time, in the second week of the season. It’s a highly anticipated contest in the Keystone State, but one that might not be getting the attention it deserves nationally given the potential implications.

Penn State will likely be ranked in the top five when the game kicks off on Sept. 9. Pitt will probably open the year in the Top 25. Each Nittany Lions game could have major playoff implications, but Pitt has potential to be in that mix as well.

The Panthers obviously got up for big games last season, but barely showed up for others, such as the blowout loss to Miami. But with a relatively easy ACC schedule this season, early victories against Penn State and Oklahoma State could put Pitt on track for a major bowl game.

At the very least, this game is going to be a significant factor in how the relative strengths of the Big Ten and ACC are viewed.

But beyond that, it should just be fun. Penn State leads the all-time series 50-43, with four ties. Pitt has won the last two, including last season’s thriller that took place after a 15-year hiatus.

There’s a simmering level of hatred between the two programs and their fans. Joe Paterno was known to tick off the Panthers fanbase from time to time, and many associated with Pitt didn’t like the way Penn State joined the Big Ten, leaving other Northeastern programs in the lurch.

To Penn State fans, sharing a state with Pitt is a nuisance. The Panthers have a knack for getting in the way, whether it be with an upset victory like last year, or challenging the Nittany Lions for in-state recruits.

But one thing that’s getting harder for either side to deny is that college football, particularly north of the Mason-Dixon Line, is better off when this rivalry is going.

Pitt has been missing something since the Big East split and the Panthers lost their rivalry with West Virginia. Penn State doesn’t have the same kind of deep-seated history or regional ties with its Big Ten rivals.

The fact that not only are the games being played again, but that they also are important on a national scale is great for everyone.

It’s been 18 years since Pitt last visited State College. The second-ranked Nittany Lions won a 20-17 thriller with a defense led by Courtney Brown and LaVar Arrington.

Perhaps we’ll see a similar nail-biter in a few months.

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