The NCAA College Football playoffs might look significantly differently had it not been for the Pittsburgh Panthers.
On Sept. 10, in Week 2 of the college football season, Pitt knocked off Pennsylvania rival Penn State, 42-39, and no one could have known at the time just how big that result would end up being in the landscape of college football. Penn State (11-2) went on to win the Big Ten title but, with two losses, was denied a place in the four-team college football playoffs. Pitt, meanwhile, would also beat ACC champion Clemson, 43-42, on Nov. 12, making the Panthers the only team to beat two teams currently in the top five in the rankings.
“It’s a statement win — both of them, I guess — as far as where we are, especially the Penn State game,’’ Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said Tuesday at a news conference at Yankee Stadium announcing the seventh annual Pinstripe Bowl, which will pit his Panthers (8-4) against Northwestern (6-6) at Yankee Stadium on Dec. 28 (2 p.m., ESPN). “When you look at the impact [of the win over Penn State], really, you kept them out of the playoffs, really. That win — and again, we didn’t intentionally try to do that, the intent was to win a football game, and the same thing with the Clemson win — it’s one of those bricks that will never fall down. It helps you tremendously in recruiting; every high school you walk into says, ‘Hey, I was watching that game,’ or, ‘I was at that game.’ ’’
Yankees president Randy Levine, in introducing both teams at Tuesday’s event, recalled again just how skeptical people were that a college football bowl game at Yankee Stadium would be a success. But he said the Yankees always believed — because the late George Steinbrenner always believed — that college football would be a hit in the Bronx, which Levine said the Pinstripe Bowl has proven to be over the past six years.
“The game has been a giant, giant success, mostly attributed to the quality of the universities that played here,’’ Levine said. “This year it’s no different. We have two really quality, sensational universities, from the Big Ten, Northwestern, and from the ACC, Pitt.’’
Pittsburgh, Levine pointed out, played in the first college football game at the original Yankee Stadium, a 3-0 loss to Syracuse in 1923. The Panthers also beat Army, 7-6, at the Stadium in 1962.
Northwestern, meanwhile, has many connections to the Yankees, beginning with Steinbrenner himself, who was an assistant coach for the Wildcats in 1955. Current Yankees manager Joe Girardi also attended Northwestern and played baseball there.