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Syracuse, Penn State, Pitt and West Virginia: The rivalries of the ‘Big 4’

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Another path SU’s rivalry question could’ve taken...

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 28 Camping World Bowl - West Virginia v Syracuse Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Though the Syracuse Orange football program didn’t join a conference until the 1990s (the Big East, obviously), they were one of many “Eastern Independents” for a long stretch. And within this group of independents, there was also a smaller group of top programs: the so-called “Big 4” of Syracuse, Penn State, Pittsburgh and West Virginia.

As a group, these teams established eligibility standards and other rules among themselves, while also scheduling each other annually. So despite not being a conference in any official sense, the four schools did perform some of the same functions. They also established a bit of a four-way rivalry, which you can see play out in SU’s own history through the end of the 1980s.

Though the “Big 4” faded long before that, its presence did create some of the basis for the rivalries many Orange fans pine for to this day. As Kevin discussed on Monday, many (on both sides) remain lukewarm about a rivalry with Boston College. Part of that comes from the fact that they weren’t officially in this “Big 4” grouping, which established more of that animosity required for true rivalry... at least for two of the other schools in question.

Syracuse v Penn State Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images

For the time being, we’ll leave out Pitt and circle back.

West Virginia is the rival we want at this point in time, but can’t have. After it was announced in 2011 that Syracuse was headed to the ACC (as was Pitt), West Virginia bailed early on the Big East in order to join the Big 12. Doing so meant a nine-game league schedule and limited room to add notable non-conference games. And if we’re being honest with ourselves, WVU would probably rather play the other two “Big 4” members more than they want to play Syracuse. Same probably goes for former Big East member Virginia Tech.

Still, we do have the Schwartzwalder Trophy — our only true trophy game if you don’t count the blog-controlled Orange Eagle — plus recent bowl history, actual animosity toward one another, a back-and-forth series (SU currently leads 34-27) and longevity that saw the series occur every year from 1955 through 2012.

The series that older fans pine for is Penn State, though the Nittany Lions are a rival in name only at this point given the infrequency of recent games (just three since both teams joined conferences). PSU had venom, sure. And they don’t really have a BIG rival to diminish Syracuse the way West Virginia does with Pitt. But the Orange are just 23-43-5 against Penn State, and just 8-26 against them since 1960. That sort of futility is hard to muster up caring for, despite the teams playing nearly every year from 1922 through 1990.

That point on longevity brings us back to Pitt. The Panthers are our longest, uninterrupted rival at this juncture — we’ve played every season since 1955 — yet fans on either side barely care about the other. The 32-40-3 record in the series for Syracuse would seemingly indicate some level of competitiveness, yet the whole thing has been a collection of runs.

Pitt is 15-3 (!!!) against SU over the last 18 games. Before that, ‘Cuse went 16-1-1 in their own 18-game stretch of dominance. The Panthers won 11 in a row immediately before that. The Orangemen won seven of nine in the years immediately preceding that streak.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 18 Pitt at Syracuse Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

For full generations at a time, Syracuse wins vs. Pittsburgh or Pittsburgh wins over Syracuse have been sure things. The ACC gluing us together in a crossover matchup was maybe supposed to help create some real conflict, but it hasn’t. Like WVU, Pitt also has bigger rivalry aspirations with the likes of Penn State and the ‘Eers. It’s hard to be a rival when you’re third in line at best despite being the only annual opponent.

So where does this leave us? Like Kevin noted on Monday, BC’s probably our best bet across all sports — at least among our more traditional foes. In football, the Eagles probably win out too compared to this grouping. Pitt hasn’t happened by this point, so it’s unlikely to do so. PSU’s gone. West Virginia’s preoccupied.

Maybe one day that Big East-on-Steroids we always toss around here will wind up happening, and then we can entertain the Big 4 and other lost matchups again. Until then, we’re pretty much stuck with Boston College and Pitt (and they’re stuck with us, too).