Thursday, November 02, 2006

Louisville, West Virginia in it for the Long Haul

Last night, Louisville beat West Virginia at home 44-34 at home to get a leg up on the competition in chase to face the Ohio St.-Michigan winner in the BCS title game in January. This might have been the most interesting game of the year in college football - though not the best, given the mistakes that West Virginia made that killed their chances. I'll admit, that there was a curiousity factor built in to this matchup that was the main reason that I tuned in, rather than the mere fact that these are two of the best teams in the country squaring off. I won't be as interested in Ohio St.-Michigan in a couple of weeks. That's old hat. There was an excitement, a freshness, a hunger permeating through this matchup that made it all the juicier. Could it really be that these two teams, both of the formerly beleaguered Big East, and both holding a top-5 ranking were meeting to decide in all likelihood, a spot in the national championship game?

These two teams? Well, believe it, and believe that they will be around for the long haul. And while teams have cycles with up seasons and down seasons, the Cardinals and Mountaineers appear primed to maintain and build upon their success for the forseeable future. Here are the reasons why according to how I see it:

The coaches: Rich Rodriguez of West Virginia and Bobby Petrino of Louisville are two of the brightest stars in the college football coaching galaxy, and as long as they keep that up, there will always be some speculation about the possibility of their leaving for "greener pastures," places with more prestige and more football history. Here's why I don't think that will happen.

In Rodriguez's case, there's rarely been a man more suited to coach a particular team than he is for the Mountaineers. The man was raised on Mountaineer football growing up in West Virginia, and later went on to play under Don Nehlen there in the early '80's. Now, this is pure speculation on my part, but I think that if Miami does indeed fire their coach Larry Coker at the end of this season, a logical person to look at as a replacement is Rodriguez. But Miami these days is not looking like the most desirable place to go coach, and besides, do you think Rodriguez would be able to look at himself in the mirror if he left West Virginia for a former Big East rival in the Hurricanes?

For Petrino, the lure would more likely be the NFL. His creative offensive mind is a seductive lure for a lot of pro teams, and he does have NFL experience, having been on the Jaguars coaching staff during the hey day of Mark Brunell. But leaving college for the NFL just never works - and if anything confirms it, it's the struggles of Dolphins coach Nick Saban, who was seen as the one man who might be able to reverse that trend.

Plus, the both of them have teams on the rise, on the verge of becoming perennial national powers. They can become legends at their respective universities, and in the process, develop college football's next great rivalry in the remade Big East. The reasons to stay are too good for them to be leaving any time soon.

Street cred: It's not enough to be a good solid program when recruiting hot shot high school kids. You have to be able to say you can hang with the big boys of college football, the "name brand" schools that everyone knows and deifies. Both Louisville and West Virginia have two recent signature wins against those kinds of elite schools. Louisville earlier this year humiliated Miami, way back when the Hurricanes were ranked. Yeah, Miami's having a rough year, but that doesn't matter in this case - you beat Miami, and you have made it a step further with that recruit who has grown up watching the Hurricanes dominate. It's a major statement that the Cardinals made.

The Mountaineers got their win in last year's Sugar Bowl, beating (and doing so with a lot more ease than the final score indicated) an SEC team in the Georgia Bulldogs. Not only did West Virginia beat a team from the revered SEC, they did it on a grand stage in a game no one expected them to win, and in front of a hostile crowd in Atlanta, that was dramatically pro-Georgia.

Precedence: The emergence of these two schools reminds me a lot of the rise of another former Big East team, Virginia Tech, in the late '90's. The Hokies had always been a solid program under coach Frank Beamer, but they were just that, and never were seen as elite. Then came the Michael Vick's magical freshman year when he took them to a surprise appearance in the National Championship game against mighty Florida State. Most people expected the Hokies to get run off the field, but they held their own, even taking a brief lead on the Seminoles in the second half. They eventally lost the game, but the point was proven: Virginia Tech can play with anyone, and they have been consistently been regarded as among the nation's elite ever since.

Again here, we have two slightly disrespected teams because of their Big East background. But let the Hokies be a guide, either of these teams are worthy of playing for a national championship, and hopefully, we'll get to see Louisville get its chance this year.

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