When 2008 football schedules were announced, this game was viewed as one that would have an effect on the national title race. Both teams, with revamped coaching rosters, were expected to ride speedy offensive attacks and opportunistic defensive stands to national prominence.
Obviously, that hasn't happened, so now the tenor of this game has changed. Sure, people will be watching, because it's the feature game on Thursday night, and there are names (Auburn, Patrick White) and subplots (coaching hot seats) to eyeball as well. However, in the camps of the respective teams, that's not the focus. It's on finding offensive continuity, on putting the viewfinder back on the conference championship chase and bowl positioning. And, of course, on getting a win.
The sad sidelight to this is that no one, at least in West Virginia, is talking about the game on its own merits. This should be a fired-up week for Mountaineer fans. An SEC power is coming to town, and while the hype about conference strength is far overplayed by much of the media, there's no denying that getting a contract with school like Auburn is cause for excitement. There should be lots of zing this week, but there's not. Instead, a small but vocal minority is dominating the conversation -- debating playcalling and beating up coaching hires and decisions. Those are topics worthy of discussion, but unfortunately they are drowning out the buildup to what should have been one of the top two home games of the season.
That lack of excitement might or might not have an effect on West Virginia, which feeds off its home crowds and night games like no other school in the country, save perhaps LSU. Whether that's the case or not, one thing is sure -- the loser of this game is going to have a tough time getting back on a winning track.
There's no doubt that the team which comes out on the short end of the score on Thursday will play the conference card -- that is, that it doesn't hurt in the race for the league title. WVU, especially, would be able to do so, as it will remain tied atop the league standings with an unblemished 2-0 record on Friday morning. However, with both teams battling offensive problems and coaching uncertainty, a loss will be another smackdown that will simply add to those issues -- whether perceived or real. Both teams need the win, and whatever confidence it brings, to help prepare it for the November stretch run.
All signs point to a low-scoring, defensive battle. Both teams have nationally ranked defenses, and nationally bottom-ranked aspects of offense. How many times, however, have we seen games that go totally against the grain? Might one or both teams find something that works against its foe, and put up 27 or 30 points? Turnovers, and scores off them, could also play a part. Confidence and momentum are funny things -- give a group a taste of success, and it can sometimes spiral. And if either Auburn or West Virginia gets that early boost, it could be the needed spark to jump start its season.
The loser, however, faces a different sort of challenge. Had this been a matchup of undefeated or one-loss teams, a defeat would not have been devastating. However, with both teams in self-preservation mode, there's a different feel to the game. Coaches, of course, will preach a different tune, that there's a lot left to play for. And they are correct. However, in today's win-it-all-or-you're-nothing view, the loser is reduced to simply playing out the string, to a December bowl game that is derided by many. That's wrong, but unfortunately, that's the way it is.
So, while this game won't change the BCS standings or garner any national buzz other than the burial of the loser, it still has great import for the two teams involved. A win, while not erasing earlier disappointments, gives the victor hope for November. A loss? Mounting criticism, calls for more changes, and a difficult challenge for the season's final month.