Louisville and Virginia meet Saturday for the first time as ACC opponents. For now, that is all they are to each other.
Perhaps that changes into something deeper, more visceral, more heated as the years go on and they play each other annually as permanent cross-division partners.
Perhaps games get tight; perhaps head coaches or star players transform the game from blasé to must-see TV. Perhaps familiarity breeds the type of competitive spirit that sets some games apart from the rest.
Perhaps they one day become rivals.
Today, these programs have next to nothing in common. They have met just twice previously, in the 1980s. They have shared no real recruiting territory. Their coaches hardly know each other. Their players know nothing about one another. As Virginia defensive end Eli Harold said, “To me, it’s just another ACC game.”
Louisville is not Maryland, nor will it ever be Maryland. That is not the fault of the program, nor is it the fault of the ACC. The Cards are just filling the spot Maryland vacated in its move to the Big Ten. It would be foolish to believe any new rivalry could duplicate what Maryland and Virginia had.
“Just being from Maryland, when we did play them it was always special for me, whether I was going back home or seeing guys I grew up with,” Virginia receiver Darius Jennings said. “That was always nice. Now, we have another great opponent. They're coming into the ACC, and it will be my first time playing them. I don’t know if you can call it a rivalry now, but down the road in the future I can see it becoming one.”
Conference realignment has forced some interesting dynamics to take shape, especially when leagues feature permanent crossover opponents. It is much more natural to form rivalries with teams in your own division.
Florida State and Clemson have become one of the biggest rivalries in the ACC because when they play, the division title is usually on the line. Over in the SEC, newcomer Texas A&M and Alabama have built one in two short years because big stakes have been on the line, too.
All the cross-division games in the ACC are real rivalries, steeped in long-standing history and tradition. Except for this one. Where the SEC could plug Missouri into one division and Texas A&M into the other and deem them annual opponents, in this case, Louisville is actually replacing a true rival.
But an opportunity has been created. Louisville traditionally has played rivalry games with Kentucky and Cincinnati; Virginia with Maryland and Virginia Tech. The Louisville-Cincinnati game is on hiatus because of conference realignment; the same obviously goes for UVa and Maryland.
Most teams do have multiple rivalry games. Louisville coach Bobby Petrino says he plans to recruit more heavily in the Virginia and Mid-Atlantic region. Virginia coach Mike London says they will recruit into the Louisville footprint as well. Rosters could begin to feature players from familiar places. Part of the reason Louisville-Miami has been so compelling the last two meetings has been all the Florida connections on the Cards’ roster. Though the teams have only met a handful of times, Lorenzo Mauldin spoke for all his teammates when he said before the opener against the Canes, “Everybody just wants to beat Miami.”
Some bad blood existed between the sides. No bad blood exists between Louisville and Virginia.
“We figured out what Miami is known for -- their big offensive linemen and skill players, and right now we’re trying to figure out what’s Virginia’s identity,” Louisville linebacker Deiontrez Mount said. “After a couple times of playing them, we’ll figure that out and we can get it going.”
Still, some have questioned whether the right strategy for the ACC moving forward is to keep the divisions aligned the way they are, especially since Louisville makes the Atlantic appear to be much stronger. Some also have wondered whether permanent cross-division rivals should be scrapped in order to allow teams to play each other more frequently.
The league has voted on both issues and decided to remain status quo. So Louisville and Virginia will get to know each other much better over the next few years.
Then, who knows what could happen.
“When you play opponents year in and year out, you get familiar with them, and that forms a rivalry within itself,” Jennings said. “When you see a guy each year you know they’re going to be marking their schedule and you’ll make yours. That just builds that tension and gets you excited for the game.”