MORGANTOWN - A close Big East race, two coaches with a competitive past and rival schools whose century-old series is in flux - yep, the bitter Backyard Brawl has its usual passion and drama.
The winner of the game between the schools 70 miles apart will remain in contention for the league title when West Virginia and Pittsburgh meet on Friday night.
The Mountaineers (7-3, 3-2 Big East) and Panthers (5-5, 3-2) were picked in the preseason to finish 1-2 in the conference, but missteps along the way have forged a tight conference race that will come down to next week's final games.
For now, the focus is on a 116-year-old series with an uncertain future and the final home game for 22 West Virginia seniors.
"It's definitely amped up a lot because of the history behind this rivalry," said West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith. "We obviously want to make sure the pride stays on our side. We've won two straight. We want to win three straight. We definitely know about this rivalry. We take it very serious."
Pittsburgh is leaving for the Atlantic Coast Conference and West Virginia is set to move to the Big 12. The schools' administrators still have to figure out their future nonconference schedules and decide whether and how often this series will be played. Both athletics directors have indicated they'll like to do just that.
West Virginia's Dana Holgorsen and Pittsburgh's Todd Graham will take the field in the Backyard Brawl as head coaches for the first time.
They've faced each other three times previously when Holgorsen, as offensive coordinator at Houston and Oklahoma State, got the best of Graham's Tulsa teams.
Houston stunned No. 25 Tulsa 70-30 in 2008, a loss Graham called "embarrassing." The following year, No. 13 Houston won 46-45 at Tulsa. Afterward, Holgorsen accused Tulsa's defensive players of faking injuries to try to slow Houston's offense. Graham said his Tulsa players did things "the right way."
Oklahoma State beat Tulsa 65-28 last year.
Holgorsen and Graham insist any harsh feelings haven't followed the coaches east. They spent time together at the Big East preseason football media day over the summer and repeatedly said this week they respect one another.
"The media is making a big deal out of we've had some competitive games," Holgorsen said. "It is completely irrelevant with this game. It is blown out of proportion."
"I think people have probably made more of that than there is," Graham said.
Graham was a West Virginia assistant under Rich Rodriguez in 2001 and 2002 and several members of Graham's Pittsburgh staff also had stints with the Mountaineers when they had one of the nation's most feared rushing attacks.
Now it's all about the pass.
Smith needs 111 yards to break Marc Bulger's single-season school record of 3,607 yards set in 1998. Smith also is on pace to set school marks for total offense, pass attempts and completions.
"You can tell he has a mastery of what he's doing," Graham said.
West Virginia wide receiver Stedman Bailey needs seven receiving yards to break the single-season school record of 1,043 yards set by David Saunders in 1996. The Mountaineers have never had two 1,000-yard receivers in one season, and Tavon Austin could join Bailey with 93 yards on Friday.
"They're very explosive," said Pittsburgh nose tackle Myles Caragein. "If you miss one tackle, that can cost you six points. It's very critical. We've been working on that, trying to come to balance and wrapping up on every play."
Pittsburgh got its first road win of the season at Louisville two weeks ago on the strength of 200 rushing yards. Zach Brown, freshman Isaac Bennett and quarterback Tino Sunseri have helped soften the blow from a season-ending injury to Big East rushing leader Ray Graham.
West Virginia has been susceptible at times to the run this season and will need to keep the Panthers in check to bolster its conference title hopes.
"My last home game, against Pittsburgh, I think we have to go out on a right note," said West Virginia safety Eain Smith, who blocked a Cincinnati field goal in the closing seconds to preserve the Mountaineers' 24-21 victory on Nov. 12.