This coming Saturday’s game against the Baylor Bears will officially initiate West Virginia University as a member institution of the Big XII Conference. The move has been much lauded as a shrewd business decision and a promising future against some of the nation’s marquee programs. The new conference home comes with increased national television exposure, increased program recognition, a clear path to playing for National Championships in the coming playoff system, and a whole new set of conference opponents.
The Mountaineers enter the Big XII conference without a natural (or even familiar) conference rival. There are no more annual Big East showdowns with the likes of Pittsburgh, Syracuse, or Louisville. This is but only a result of the latest round of conference realignment.
Those with short term memories think that this recent phenomenon of conference hopping is unique, but they are quite mistaken. As long as there have been conferences, there have been teams jumping from one conference home to another, losing rivalries along the way. West Virginia is a prime example of this trend.
West Virginia began its football program in 1891 as an independent. The Mountaineers remained an independent for almost it’s entire history, except for a quick stop in the West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (disputed, mid 1920s), until 1950.
During the early days of Mountaineer football, WVU annually played games against teams that were nearby geographically. The early rivalries included Pittsburgh, Waynesburg, West Virginia Wesleyan, Marietta, Penn State, among others. The biggest rivalry of the early days, the one rival that is actually mentioned in Hail West Virginia “Others may be black or crimson,” is Washington & Jefferson.
The Presidents are now relegated to Division III and no longer a viable rival. As fierce as the rivalry was, there are no Mountaineers fans clamoring to reignite this series (not that it would count for anything).
In 1950, WVU joined the Southern Conference, picking up conference rivals George Washington, Washington & Lee, Virginia Military Institute, Richmond, and others. WVU also started up a pretty good rivalry with Maryland around this time, the only former Southern Conference opponent that the Mountaineers regularly play now.
Between 1967 – 1990, the Mountaineers were independent once more. During this time, WVU routinely played other independents such as Syracuse, Penn State, Pittsburgh, Rutgers, Boston College, Virginia Tech, and others that formed the core of the Big East. Obviously the Mountaineers continued to play these teams through the early 2000s (Virginia Tech, Miami, and Boston College) until this past year (the Big East leftovers). The move to the Big XII has eliminated, at least for the near future, all series with former Big East Conference opponents.
For their history, the Mountaineers are 704-457-45. That is 1,206 games played in the 119 year history of WVU football. Of the 1,206 games played in Mountaineers history, only 13 games have been played against Big XII members (9-4 record). Looking at the pool of conference opponents, the Mountaineers have never played Baylor or Iowa State. WVU has only played one game each against Texas, TCU, Texas Tech, and Kansas (4-0 record). The only teams that any sort of “historic rivalry” exists with would be Kansas State (1-1), Oklahoma State (2-1), and Oklahoma (2-2).
Obviously, the move to the Big XII was motivated by money and there is no immediate conference rivalry. Many think that one could emerge with either Texas Tech or Oklahoma State given the Holgorsen history. I think both are prime candidates to become rivals and would nominate Iowa State as another option. Iowa State is somewhat geographically isolated, like WVU. The geographic isolation means they do not have a natural rival (like Kansas and Kansas State, etc) and would be a good pair for the isolated Mountaineers.
West Virginia does not have a clear rival in their new conference. Historically, the Mountaineers have adopted new rivalries in their new confereneces or in their periods of independence. All it takes to spawn a rivalry is a few close games and a pair of drunk, passionate fan bases. Given what we have seen out of the Big XII the past few seasons, there is certainly not shortage of either close games or drunk fans.