When is a rivalry not a rivalry?
On paper, West Virginia and Marshall should be rivals. They're the only two FBS schools in their own small state. There are plenty of connections between the schools, even more so this year (more on that in a minute).
But when the Friends of Coal Bowl kicks off Friday night (ESPN, 7 ET), it will lack the bite of most bitter in-state showdowns. Part of the reason is that it has been so one-sided; West Virginia has never lost to the Thundering Herd and has won the past four meetings by an average of nearly 25 points. And the series doesn't have as much history as you might expect -- the teams have only played five times since 1923.
There are many Mountaineers fans who see this as a ho-hum kind of game. I asked on Twitter recently whether West Virginia fans wanted the series to continue, and the majority of those who responded said either no, or not with the game making regular stops in Huntington.
The current series contract ends in 2012, and this is the last year that Marshall has a scheduled home game between the two. Gov. Joe Manchin has been an ardent supporter of extending the series, but West Virginia is demanding a 2-for-1 deal, while the Thundering Herd wants a home-and-home contract. There's a good chance that even if the schools reach another deal that they might not play every year.
West Virginia coaches and players have used the 'R' word this week to describe this game, however.
"Yeah, it's a rivalry," cornerback Brandon Hogan said. "It's in-state and not too far away from us. I feel like we owe it to the guys on the team from West Virginia to not have a loss in this rivalry game."
"It’s all about state pride," running back Noel Devine said. "It means a lot to people here."
Adding interest to this year's game is the coaching connection. New Marshall head coach Doc Holliday was a longtime West Virginia assistant. When Bill Stewart got promoted to full-time coach after the 2008 Fiesta Bowl, he sacrificed some of his salary to bring Holliday aboard as associate head coach and recruiting coordinator for a $400,000 salary. The ties between Stewart and Holliday extend almost 40 years.
"I put a lot of trust in him and confidence in him," Stewart said. "He has been a confidant for me. We're tremendous friends and I wish him nothing but the best, but I want to beat him."
Still, there were some hurt feelings inside the Mountaineers program when Holliday left and tried to recruit players to Marshall that he had been pursuing as a West Virginia assistant. Holliday also knows the West Virginia personnel, schemes and secrets as well as anyone. But Stewart says that is no big deal, and that the Mountaineers have changed all their sideline hand signals.
"The playing is done by the men in the arena," Stewart said. "The guys on the sidelines have direction over that. But when it comes down to blocking and tackling and young men playing hard and straining and all the intangibles of playing football, that's usually done by the guys on the field, not off it."
Besides, Holliday might know how West Virginia likes to hand off to Devine, but that doesn't mean his players can stop it. In his debut as head coach, the Thundering Herd lost 45-7 at Ohio State. The Herd did not score a point on offense while giving up 529 yards.
"Looking at the film, they made a few mistakes in the secondary," West Virginia receiver Jock Sanders said. "Their secondary is not their strength. Their defensive
line and their linebackers are their strength. We’ll have to exploit the secondary with the things that we do with our offense."
The Mountaineers are heavy favorites to win the Coal Bowl yet again. It will take a great effort for Marshall to reverse history -- and to inject some life into this rivalry that's not quite a rivalry.