When Bill Stewart and Tommy Tuberville meet at midfield in the hours prior to Thursday night's game to exchange pleasantries, one can only imagine what the two coaches will be chatting about. If nothing else, though, they should have plenty of material to choose from.
Both schools entered the season ranked among the nation's top ten. Yet both have struggled on the offensive side of the football through the first half of the regular season, setting up what many believe will be a defensive struggle in front of a packed Milan Puskar Stadium and national television audience.
Perhaps a Clinton-esque "I feel your pain" is the best way for either coach to strike up the conversation?
"Auburn is probably feeling the way that we're feeling right now," Stewart said on Monday at his weekly press conference, which took place a day earlier than normal due to the Thursday kick. "With people's high expectations, to some they have not been met. We're doing ok, we're not doing great but we're not doing badly either, and it's the same with Auburn; they're looking for a win and we're looking for a win.
"I think the match up will be very interesting because of the types of offenses that are playing, and special teams who look tremendous on their part," continued West Virginia's first-year head coach. "Both defenses seem to be playing very well also, so it will be a very interesting match-up and battle."
One of the biggest issues West Virginia has had to overcome in preparing for Auburn has been simply figuring out what they will be trying to run. Tuberville, in his 10th season at the helm of the Tigers, abruptly fired first-year offensive coordinator Tony Franklin in the midst of preparations for an October 11 game against Arkansas.
Franklin had been hired to install his version of the spread offense at Auburn, a stark contrast to the between-the-tackles, I-formation based offense the Tigers have traditionally run. With a roster full of players recruited to a completely different style, one figured it would take some time for the spread to catch on at Auburn. Unfortunately for Franklin, Tuberville wasn't willing to wait as long as it apparently was going to take.
The Tigers went on to lose against Arkansas, but with a little bit of extra time to prepare for the Mountaineers, it's only natural to assume that they would be a little bit more comfortable in their new (old) scheme. Just about the only thing the Mountaineers can count on is that sophomore quarterback Kodi Burns will start for Auburn.
"That's what makes the game exciting and very interesting because from what we've heard, and all we are going on is hearsay, is that Kodi Burns is going to be the quarterback," Stewart explained. "I don't have anyone down there looking to see, I'll never do that, but we'll be getting ready for Kodi Burns. It's his offense to run and he can run.
"He's very exciting and he can break your defense down in a matter of seconds; he can be there in a matter of seconds because he can tuck it and go. He is who we are preparing for, they are going to run the spread from what we've heard, and I'm sure they will jump in the ‘I' formation a little bit. I would imagine they would do that, I don't know for sure but we'll find out. The receivers can run, too."
As for his own offense, Stewart is hopeful that the struggling unit will iron out the season-long woes that have left the Mountaineers relying on defense and special teams to eke out wins against Division I-A competition.
West Virginia has yet to score more than 24 points against a Division I-A foe after opening the season with 48 points in a win over Villanova.
Those in and around the program have whispered in the 10 days since the Syracuse game that they expect the offense to open up against the Tigers. Matching up against Auburn's vaunted defense should provide a test to see just exactly where the offense is as the season's second half begins.
"I like to think that if this game is a measuring stick, which I say it is, then we'll have some success and come out feeling OK," Stewart said. "That's our plan. We'll take a win anyway we can take it because that's what the game is all about. Like I said last week, I'd rather come out with a win and not look so pretty than to lose a football game and get a lot of style points."
Two defenses that have played at a top 25 level. Two offenses that have not. Will it be more of the same, or something completely different? Either or would not surprise Stewart.
"They are fast, big and very explosive," he said. "Auburn just hasn't been hitting on all cylinders."
"As we indicated earlier, we're in the same boat."