West Virginia’s entry into the Big 12 Conference has been a blessing, primarily because without the affiliation WVU would have been left adrift in the shifting winds of conference affiliation.
But as Mountaineer Nation has often lamented, the conference reshuffling left West Virginia estranged from their traditional rivals.
Tomorrow night, however, the most significant rivalry in WVU sports history is renewed when the Mountaineers take on the Pitt Panthers. Legions of West Virginia fans will journey to Pittsburgh, shading entire sections of Acrisure Stadium with Mountaineer gold and blue.
The fortunes of the two programs have shifted since the series was discontinued after the 2011 season. The Mountaineers won the last three meetings, five of the last seven, and seven of the last ten.
Over the stretch of those ten years, WVU won an average of nine games a year, with three 11 win seasons. Pitt, meanwhile, averaged seven wins and had four non-winning seasons. But then Pitt rocketed into the national picture with an 11 win season and an ACC title last season, while West Virginia limped to a six and seven record.
Pitt players are talking not only about repeating as conference champs, but also getting to the four-team national championship playoff. That may be overly optimistic, but that comes with success—goals are set higher, and they seem more attainable.
As for West Virginia, the aspirations are more modest—just be better. Neal Brown has yet to coach his team to that signature win, and notable road victories have been hard to come by. Brown has had his share of challenges—the departing Dana Holgorsen’s depleted roster, Covid, NIL, and an exodus of significant contributors through the transfer portal to name a few.
But judgement of coaches always comes down to wins and losses, and whether the achievements of the team reasonably match the expectations of the fans, ticketholders and contributors.
All of which means the stakes are incredibly high for this season opener. Consider the potential impact of a defeat for either team.
A Pitt loss to its unranked regional rival would instantly set off the criticism that the previous year’s success was an aberration, that the departure of an NFL quarterback, a Biletnikoff Award receiver and the offensive coordinator all returned the Pitt program to average.
For West Virginia, a loss, especially a bad one, would further fuel the chorus of criticism of Brown and his staff. Brown is not on the hot seat now, but if a loss to Pitt is the beginning of another mediocre season, then he starts next year with the unenviable “must win” status.
Over the years, my feelings toward Pitt have evolved. I don’t hate Pitt anymore because there is already way too much emotional hostility in sports. Why add to the acrimony? Instead, I enjoy revisiting the deep and colorful history of the series and value the renewal of the Backyard Brawl.