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Starkey: Who's best: Pitt, PSU or WVU?

| Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013, 11:15 p.m.
Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review
Penn State running back Zach Zwinak (left) protects the ball from fellow running back Deron Thompson during the afternoon practice session following Media Day festivities Thursday, Aug. 8, 2013, at the practice fields near Holuba Hall in University Park.

In a sane world, Pitt, Penn State and West Virginia would play in the same football conference.

In a semi-sane world, they would appear regularly on each other's schedules.

This is not a sane world.

This is a world in which Pitt will play Old Dominion, Penn State will play Eastern Michigan, and West Virginia will play William & Mary (and Georgia State) — but none will play each other.

The Backyard Brawl is dead. Pitt and Penn State won't play again until 2016. Penn State and West Virginia stopped playing in 1992.

Penn State competes in the Big Ten, where Ohio State, I suppose, is the main rival even though Ohio State has an infinitely larger one in Michigan. Pitt might have a quasi-rival or two on its schedule, but if it considers Notre Dame one of them, I doubt the feeling is mutual. West Virginia will travel to the likes of Waco, Texas, and Manhattan, Kan., to play conference games. It is an outsider in the Big 12, its campus roughly 1,200 miles from conference headquarters in Dallas.

Sadly, then, the three major programs in our midst will settle nothing against each other. They can't even vie for the once-prestigious but completely useless Lambert-Meadowlands Trophy — a 77-year-old award given to the top team in the Northeast — because West Virginia was ruled ineligible for it upon joining the Big 12.

Last year, a team from the Midwest (Cincinnati) won the Lambert-Meadowlands Trophy. So there's that.

But who needs to settle anything on the field? This is college football, after all, where man-made and computer-enhanced rankings determine the national title-game participants and where the “Big Ten” soon will have 14 teams.

We could play computer-simulated games pitting Penn State, West Virginia and Pitt against each other. We could at least rank them. Somebody should out of pity, considering none received a vote in the USA Today coaches poll while noted powerhouses Arkansas State, East Carolina, Kent State and Ohio did.

I'll do it.

And I shall rank them as such:

1. Penn State: 8-4 overall, 5-3 Big Ten

2. Pitt: 6-6, 3-5 ACC

3. West Virginia: 5-7, 3-6 Big 12

True, Bill O'Brien has to break in a new quarterback at Penn State. But who would you rather have doing that? O'Brien broke in an old quarterback last year. He worked miracles with Matt McGloin, who has opened eyes at Oakland Raiders camp.

A year ago today, did anyone believe Matt McGloin had an NFL future?

O'Brien's offense will be fine. He has about 17 tight ends to go with a workable line, stud receiver Allen Robinson and punishing tailback Zach Zwinak, last seen bulldozing Wisconsin for 179 yards on 36 carries.

I'm more curious to see how Penn State responds defensively with a handful of new starters and a new coordinator (John Butler).

If O'Brien worked miracles with McGloin, then Paul Chryst performed an exorcism with Tino Sunseri, casting out enough demons to somehow produce 21 touchdown passes against only three interceptions. Sunseri's replacement, Tom Savage, is in good hands, though he also might be under siege if Pitt doesn't produce some semblance of a running game.

If the Panthers win more than they lose, the defense will be mostly responsible. The unit is all but intact from a year ago, when it came together down the stretch before going south in the Compass Bowl.

From all indications, Chryst is putting down roots here. He is trying to build a foundation. Whether he turns out to be the right man or another in a line of not-quite-right-enough Pitt coaches remains to be seen. It'll help that the ACC isn't much better than the old Big East.

Meanwhile, nobody should forget that West Virginia carried the conference flag in the pathetic final decade of the Big East. The Mountaineers consistently performed on the national stage while their conference brethren stumbled all over themselves.

Last year, however, West Virginia found out that life in a real conference can be problematic.

No doubt, the program has a quarterbacks guru of its own in Dana Holgorsen. I'm just not sure Holgorsen is cut out for the whole head-coaching thing.

After his team came apart two years ago in the Backyard Brawl — only Sunseri's propensity to sack himself allowed WVU to win — I wondered in print if Holgorsen is “a mad-scientist type who belongs in a press box scribbling pass patterns, not on a sideline pretending to be a general.”

I still wonder.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at raystarkey@gmail.com.

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