By Mike Wise
Thursday, September 14, 2006
Howdy, folks, and welcome to the Burning Couch Bowl, brought to you by IKEA and Kerosene. It's Maryland at West Virginia tonight for everything not nailed down on a Morgantown porch. The Mountaineers romp at home, and two freshmen named Skeeter and Cletus lose their patio furniture. It's that simple.
Some big-time programs bring down goalposts; West Virginia and Maryland just burn, baby.
Did you know kids in Morgantown and College Park actually torch sofas and Ottomans? This has become such a pyromaniac phenomenon that good-natured Mountaineer fans launched the Web site, WeMustIgniteThisCouch.com/ . It's a send-up of an Under Armour ad, in which Ralph Friedgen bellows in front of his manly football players, "We must protect this house!" -- back when the burly Maryland coach used to do national commercials and the Terps were considered among the best college football teams in the country.
Five years into the tenure of Friedgen and West Virginia Coach Rich Rodriguez, the general feeling is the tables have turned, that tonight's game on ESPN is a referendum on the progress of the two alums who came home to refurbish. And it's easy to get caught up in that notion based on records.
Friedgen thumped Rodriguez four times in his first three years, including the 2003 Gator Bowl. The Terps went 31-8, won the 2001 ACC championship and played in three straight bowl games. Since then, West Virginia has beaten Maryland twice, is coming off an 11-1 year and is now the chic pick to go unbeaten and play for the national title. The Terps went 10-12 the past two seasons and couldn't even get their boosters a postseason trip to Boise. Raw numbers don't lie.
But if you probe deeper, that's not the whole truth.
Two years ago, three powerhouses moved out of West Virginia's conference and into Maryland's. Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College left the Big East to become part of the realigned ACC, making it one of the toughest football conferences in the country. Maryland's schedule became considerably tougher the way West Virginia's became weaker.
There is a reason West Virginia could be unfairly shut out of the BCS title game this season even if the Mountaineers stay undefeated: the Big East. Voters and computers will most likely pick a one-loss Notre Dame or Ohio State team before they reward Rodriguez for routing Cincinnati and South Florida in Morgantown.
Maryland, meantime, has not yet had to play Miami and Virginia Tech in the same season, but the Hokies essentially replaced mediocre North Carolina on the 2004 schedule and abysmal Duke on the '05 slate. This season, the Hokies are off the card but Miami is on, and the Terrapins still don't get the virtually automatic conference win against Duke. Given ACC expansion, the difference between two disenchanting 5-6 seasons and a couple of 6-5, possibly 7-4, bowl years is not that great. It's certainly not as vast as the jury boxes on the message boards would have you believe.
I'm not saying Maryland hasn't had two down years or that ACC supremacy is why the Terps stunk it up and why the Mountaineers have flourished; ACC expansion had little to do with abysmal quarterback play in College Park two years ago. I'm saying the difference between the directions of the two programs is not as extreme as what some prognosticators are predicting the margin in tonight's game will be. I'm saying Maryland has a real shot.
More than any other subculture in America, besides maybe politics and contract detonators, college sports fans deal in polarities. A 9-3 season is cause for riotous joy while a 5-6 season is cause for just plain riots. But there are maybe four close games in a season -- and a few brain-locks or big plays in those games -- that mold perception.
Maryland's losses to Clemson and West Virginia last year were those kinds of games. The Terps make a couple of plays and close each team out, they're 6-0 entering a home game against Virginia Tech and having the nation talk about that 2004 aberration.
The zealots forget this isn't merely about recruiting classes and innovative coaches. The competitors are between 18 and 22 years old. So many more variables come into play in the minds of young men than in older professionals.
Like, whether your starting quarterback will lose his cookies in a hostile environment. You can show your kids all the video you want and pipe in all imaginable crowd noise into practice, including John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads," which Friedgen has done all week. But you can't game-plan for what's going on in Sam Hollenbach's head the moment he looks up into the West Virginia night before kickoff.
Same goes for the undergrads in Morgantown. Rodriguez and Notre Dame's Charlie Weis have suddenly supplanted Friedgen as the game's offensive gurus, but what if the Mountaineers' vaunted no-huddle, spread offense is kept off the field for big chunks of time by Maryland's running game, which isn't half bad? How does a young kid like West Virginia sophomore tailback Steve Slaton react when he has fewer holes to run through, when he's not scoring six touchdowns like he did against Louisville last year?
Everyone talks about the thin line in the NFL, the difference between a playoff team and a pretender. That line can be corn-silk thin in college. So while the easy pick is West Virginia by three touchdowns, I can't go there. If Maryland runs the ball extremely well and keeps the Mountaineers' offense off the field, this game could be riveting theater. It could be less a referendum on where two programs are headed than a statement about how closely they resemble each other.
I desperately want to pick Maryland to win this game. Yet because I have taken an unnecessary number of potshots at West Virginia fans the past two years, my editor already has enough fears about my safety in Morgantown. About the only thing less safe than me tonight is Skeeter and Cletus's sofa.