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Does Backyard Brawl have a future?

By Jack Bogaczyk

For the 69th straight season and the 104th time in history, West Virginia and Pittsburgh will play a college football date, this time on Friday night at Mountaineer Field.

As for the 105th time?

Let's just say it's maybe more up in the air than exactly which season the Mountaineers will really switch conferences, from the Big East to the Big 12.

If WVU gets to the Big 12 for 2012-13 - what the Mountaineers desire - the 105th "Backyard Brawl" is almost surely not going to be next season at Heinz Field.

If WVU can't extricate itself that soon, then the 105th meeting is likely in 2012, because Pitt plans to be in the Big East two more seasons before a move to the ACC for 2014-15.

The rivalry - the most played in Eastern major college football besides Army-Navy (the 112th meeting next month at FedEx Field) - is anything but doomed, however.

That's good. The "Backyard Brawl" moniker has given the rivalry some cache. People in Oregon know that's the name for WVU-Pitt. It would be a shame to see it go the way of Nebraska-Oklahoma and Penn State-Pitt.

The telecast networks have made the game a national staple. Friday night's ESPN telecast marks the ninth consecutive season the Brawl has been on national TV. The last season it didn't air on ESPN, CBS or ABC at least on a regional basis was 1994.

With a future in the far-flung Big 12, it would behoove West Virginia to continue playing some non-conference games annually in its backyard. Ditto for Pitt, which also seems to have a much better chance of rekindling a series with Penn State since fired legend Joe Paterno has been removed from the picture.

As fierce as the WVU-Pitt rivalry is - belying a lopsided 61-39-3 edge by the Panthers - the schools are said to be on the same page on whether or not to play on. After all, only the last 20 meetings have been conference games.

"I can tell you that (Pitt Athletic Director) Steve Pederson and I have spoken about it more than once," West Virginia AD Oliver Luck told me Friday, "and I think our views on it are very similar - which is to say pretty much identical.

"We both have a strong desire to maintain the rivalry. Now, we know we face questions about the next couple, three years, but it's safe to say we both want to continue playing each other as soon as we can."

Pitt athletics issued a generic statement to me last week when I asked about the Backyard Brawl future:

"At this juncture, with both institutions set to join new leagues, it would be difficult to predict what opportunities will be available with future non-conference scheduling."

E.J. Borghetti, Pitt's fine senior associate AD for media relations, expounded further in a somewhat personal fashion.

"Everyone loves neighborhood rivalries," Borghetti said. "But the neighborhood, in this case Eastern football, is changing - quickly and dramatically. What is that going to mean for the future of the Backyard Brawl?

"As a kid, I never thought I'd see the day when Pitt and Penn State didn't play every November. Penn State's move to the Big Ten had a significant hand in changing that. Certainly there is a desire to keep age-old traditions alive, but ultimately both schools will need to see what opportunities are available once future conference schedules are set."

Since 1919, the only interruption of the WVU-Pitt series came during World War II (1940-42), and after the Panthers had won 11 in a row and 15 of 16.

The only foes the Panthers and WVU have played every season since 1955 are each other, and ACC-bound Syracuse.

Conference realignment seems certain to curb the Mountaineer-Orange series when WVU moves to the Big 12. Pitt-SU will remain a conference game, albeit in a different league.

Penn State and Pitt have played 96 times and are scheduled again in 2016 and '17, and I think Pitt would obviously choose to face the Nittany Lions over WVU if it came down to one or the other.

If West Virginia gets the move it wants soon - Luck said the Mountaineers "are talking about 12 in '12; the Big 12 in 2012" - WVU has to drop one of four non-conference games next season.

Luck said discussions on how to potentially proceed there have been held in-house, but no final decision has been made (and likely won't until WVU is firmly in or out of the Big East for 2012-13).

He also said the future with Pitt will be considered in conjunction with a nine-game Big 12 schedule that will test WVU more than the current seven-game Big East schedule.

"We need to decide what do we do with our three non-conference games, when in the Big 12, we're going to be playing four, if not five, top 25 teams, in the conference every year," Luck said. "We need to be smart with what we do non-conference.

"Steve Pederson and I have spoken and we've emphasized we want to find a way to continue (the WVU-Pitt series). The question of when, we don't quite have an answer for that yet, and might not have for a while.

"But if you're looking, historically, at all the teams close by that West Virginia has played on a regular basis recently, if you're talking about Maryland, Marshall, even East Carolina, which has been on-again, off-again, Pitt obviously has a special place among those."

Contact Sports Editor Jack Bogaczyk at jackb@dailymail.com or 304-348-7949.


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