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Backyard Brawl even bigger this year

West Virginia and Pittsburgh both finished up their afternoon games Saturday at about the same time and with the exact same 17-10 scores. That meant that first place in the Big East would be at stake in this week's meeting between the old rivals.

Mountaineers linebacker J.T. Thomas didn't seem too interested when informed Pitt had beaten South Florida to maintain its one-game lead in the standings. That didn't change his feelings about the upcoming matchup.

"It wouldn't matter if they were undefeated or if they had lost all their games," Thomas said. "I don't care if they were in the SEC, the ACC or whatever conference. The Backyard Brawl is going to be the Backyard Brawl."

In a league where several teams were thrown together just five years ago and where some programs have spent less than a decade in the FBS, there's nothing quite like the Backyard Brawl in the Big East. The series has history, as this will be the 103rd meeting between the schools. The geography creates natural tension, as the two schools are separated by about 75 miles. And, oh brother, is there good old-fashioned hatred.

Thomas said at Big East media day that he didn't even want to say hello to the Pitt players in attendance. On Sunday, Thomas tweeted: "Went to church this morning to ask god for forgiveness for what we're about to do this Friday ... Amen."

So, yeah, they could play this game in a parking lot in the dog days of summer or in a blizzard on a peak in the Andes, and both teams would go at it with everything they've got.

Still, this year's Brawl has some extra juice. If Pitt beats West Virginia, it will be just one win or one Connecticut loss away from capturing the Big East title and a BCS bid. West Virginia can effectively knock Pitt out of the race with a victory here and in its regular-season finale, and the Mountaineers would then head to a BCS game with a UConn loss.

The last time this game has had such a direct impact on the league title and BCS bid was in 2004, when Pitt slipped past West Virginia 16-13. The Panthers went on to win a four-way tiebreaker that included the Mountaineers, and they played in the Fiesta Bowl.

"Combine the fact that we're trying to win a championship with the emotion of the Backyard Brawl and the history of this game ... it makes for a lot electricity, that's for sure," Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said.

The two teams have split the past 10 Brawls, and the last three have all been thrillers. Pittsburgh spoiled West Virginia's chances of making the BCS title game with a stunning 13-9 upset in Morgantown to end the 2007 regular season. The Panthers clipped the Mountaineers again by a 19-15 score in Pat White's final Brawl appearance. Last year, West Virginia got revenge by beating then No. 8 Pitt 19-16 on a late field goal.

Notice that neither team has scored 20 points in any of the past three meetings. This is often a physical game, and the way both defenses are playing this year it could be another low-scoring slugfest.

"It's going to be mano-a-mano, bone on bone," West Virginia linebacker Anthony Leonard said. "I can't wait."

Neither can others. Syracuse coach Doug Marrone said he doesn't watch many college football games that don't involve his team, because he doesn't have the time and he doesn't want them cluttering his head or his emotions. But he plans on watching Friday's game on TV.

"I don't really get excited about too many things in my life, but I will make sure I get a chance to see that game," he said. "I think it will be one heck of a game. People say the Big East is this or the Big East is that. I say, 'You know what? You need to watch this game.'"

The Big East's best rivalry could very well decide the Big East champion. And that's exactly how it should be.