The Underdog Role

Common perception is that West Virginia's football team plays better as an underdog. While the early betting lines suggest the Mountaineers aren't in that role against Florida State in the Gator Bowl, WVU head coach Bill Stewart is doing what he can to sell the "us against the world" view.

"We're underdogs," Stewart said Monday as West Virginia prepared for its final three practices at home before disbanding for Christmas. "You're talking about one of the greatest coaches in the history of the game going out."

Stewart knows what the emotions of a "last game" can bring. He showed off his Music City Bowl ring, won for West Virginia's 49-38 triumph over the SEC's Mississippi Rebels in Don Nehlen's final game as head coach.

"I wear this ring very proudly. That's my Music City Bowl ring, right there. Don Nehlen. I've coached a lot of football games in my time. That one right there, I gave everything I had to give. I gave just a little more that night for Coach Nehlen. I can only imagine what the Florida State coaches and players are going to do, and I can only imagine what Coach Bowden himself is going to do for this last hurrah."

Stewart also noted that WVU will be outnumbered in the stands as well.

"I've told the guys this, there's going to be 70,000 crimson, gold and white Florida State fans against about 15,000 of us. I like those odds, I'll take those odds, because 15,000 West Virginians in that stadium's all we need. If we get more, that's great. Our men know they're going to be outnumbered, our men know they're going to be up against it, and if they don't they're going to know real quick as soon as we come through that tunnel."

While emotion would seem to be on the side of the Seminoles, there's also the school of thought that says getting all amped up lasts about one series -- then it's back to fundamentals and execution. And when you think about it, that makes sense. Will an FSU defender be thinking about Bowden when he's racing to the corner to track down Noel Devine, or will a Seminole wideout have history on his mind when he's going up high to try to catch a pass? Probably not. However, Stewart isn't willing to concede to even that accepted bit of dogma.

"This game, I swear it's going to be different, because it's Coach Bowden and because it's going to be 70,000 Florida State fans and millions at home. I probably got family at home that will be cheering for him, I don't know. Probably half of you are going to be cheering for him."

Stewart is clearly using whatever methods he can to make sure his team is ready to play, but he knows that the keys will be the same as they always are.

"Will the Mountaineers go down and block? And tackle? And hit? And hustle? That's what I want to know. Will the Mountaineers, this Mountaineer team, find the resolve and the resiliency to step up to the plate, take the battle to the shoulder, and play the intense football that we're capable of playing? I hope that's what you see. I hope that's what I see."

So no matter how many times CBS cuts to Bobby Bowden on the sidelines, how much the "last game" angle is played up by the Gator Bowl committee and the media on the scene, it probably won't have a great effect on the contest. Of course, if FSU wins, there will be about a million, "we wanted to send Coach Bowden out with a win" comments, but that's just rhetoric. In the end, it's the answers to the questions that Stewart enumerated that will tell the tale.


West Virginia practice Monday, and will hold sessions on Tuesday and Wednesday before breaking for Christmas. The team will reassemble in Jacksonville the day after Christmas and have its first practice there on Dec. 27th. That's one day later than WVU went to its past three Gator Bowls. For those games, WVU traveled and regrouped on Christmas day, which wasn't well-received by some members of the team.

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WVU's routine in Florida will be a familiar one for the holdovers on the staff and team. The Mountaineers will again stay at the Sawgrass Resort southeast of town, and practice at the University of North Florida.

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