If there has been one drawback to West Virginia University’s move to the Big 12, it’s that no real rivalry made the move with it, nor was there one ready for WVU when it arrived.
No Pitts or Penn States. Not even any Virginia Techs or Marylands. The Mountaineers’ position as a geographical outlier in the conference has kept a real rivalry from germinating. That’s to be expected when your closest conference foe sits a hair under 900 miles away in Ames, Iowa.
From the looks of it, WVU fans would reeeeeallllly love to spark a rivalry with Texas. Look at the glee Mountaineer backers show every time they can flash that “Horns Down” hand sign that former receiver David Sills made a WVU fandom staple. Former Mountaineer quarterback Will Grier popped the Puskar Stadium crowd recently by flashing double “Horns Down” signs ... at the North Carolina State game. Again, WVU fans are working hard to make this a rivalry.
(Of course, Texas made it all easier with the way it handled “Horns Down,” publicly complaining about it and getting the Big 12 office involved. It’s like when your little brother knows what drives you crazy. What does he do? He keeps doing that thing over and over.)
But you need two sides to have a rivalry. Is Texas playing along?
For now, let’s forget what Texas players, or WVU players for that matter, are saying. Of course, they’re downplaying any extraneous noise. Over the next few seasons, let’s pay attention more to how they act than what they say. What about Texas fans? Are they jumping into the scrum with the Mountaineer faithful?
Look, y’all, Texas plays Oklahoma next week. The Longhorns are saving themselves for that ride down the Red River.
“But Redd,” you may be saying, “isn’t one of the keys to a rivalry the fact that one team has shown it can beat the other? WVU has won three of the last four.”
True, but two of those wins, the ones in 2015 and 2016, came when Texas was in the throes of back-to-back 5-7 seasons. None of the Texas fans were worried about WVU beating their team. Plenty of other teams were just as successful in that quest. They were more worried about getting “back.”
Well, Texas is “back” now. It’s just outside the top 10 with plenty of time to climb back in. It has a Heisman candidate at quarterback. Its only loss this year was to an LSU team that is a contender for a spot in the College Football Playoff.
And that makes this season the perfect time to start a rivalry.
How so? Beat the Longhorns in Morgantown.
Last year’s loss in Austin was one Texas could shrug off. It was a close one against one of the best offenses in WVU history. The Longhorns still made the Big 12 title game, still played in a Sugar Bowl, still beat Georgia in Atlanta and still finished at No. 9 in the country.
Needless to say, expectations around Austin are higher. Fans expect to see at least a repeat of last year. So what would happen if WVU — a team with a new coach, new philosophies and new starters all over the field — pulled off the upset?
This year’s WVU team isn’t last year’s. A loss here, coupled with that previous loss to LSU, would all but dash Texas’ CFP hopes. Unless Sam Ehlinger puts up bonkers passing numbers in a loss, his Heisman chances would take a major hit. It might even put the Longhorns chances at a New Year’s Six bowl into question.
Then Texas, and Texas fans, would have to stand there and watch 60,000 Old Gold and Blue-clad WVU fans unleash a maelstrom of taunts and “Horns Down” gestures. The jeers would ring in their ears and would stick with them as they trudged to the locker room, filed into the bus and probably wouldn’t subside until the team plane lifted off back toward the Lone Star State.
A loss to WVU last year was a nuisance. A loss this year would make Texas’ orange blood boil.
Then, it’s a rivalry.
Now, sparking that rivalry this year is a mighty, mighty big “if.” Again, this isn’t last year’s WVU team. Will Grier and Gary Jennings and David Sills and Trevon Wesco aren’t on that field. Ehlinger is, and he’s only played one game where he hasn’t thrown four touchdown passes. The slacker only threw three in that game. This Texas team is very, very good. This WVU team is one still trying to find its way.
But if West Virginia can do what no one really thinks it can on Saturday, then WVU fans just might get their wish and the Mountaineers might give birth to their first real rivalry of the Big 12 era.