COLLEGE PARK - As it turns out, Maryland's football team won't have to wait until the weekend to find out its opponent in the Gator Bowl on Jan. 1.
Gator Bowl president Rick Catlett ended the suspense with a trip to Maryland yesterday, announcing during the Terps' regular Tuesday news conference that West Virginia will receive an invitation, regardless of the outcome of this weekend's games.
"Legally, because of contractual obligations, we may have to wait to make that official, but your opponent is going to be West Virginia, Coach," Catlett told Maryland's Ralph Friedgen.
The announcement came as somewhat of a surprise, because Gator Bowl officials had said on Monday that they were going to wait to make an offer until after the Miami-Pittsburgh game and the West Virginia-Temple game this weekend. But Catlett said even if the Panthers and Mountaineers both won their games, it was highly unlikely that West Virginia could still earn a spot in the Bowl Championship Series.
With Maryland (8-3, 5-2) and West Virginia (7-4, 5-1) already having a natural rivalry, and both schools agreeing that a rematch would not be a problem (Maryland won the first meeting, 34-7, on Sept. 20), the Mountaineers were a natural fit for the Gator Bowl.
"Right now in the BCS poll, Pittsburgh is ranked 25th and West Virginia 30th," Catlett said. "If Pittsburgh beats Miami [earning a share of the Big East championship with West Virginia], it's going to help their ranking. I don't think a win by West Virginia over Temple is going to move them at all, and they may go back a space. Whoever wins the Miami-Pittsburgh game is definitely going to be ranked five spots ahead of West Virginia."
The BCS rankings, not head-to-head matchups, determine which team goes if there's a tie for the conference title. West Virginia defeated Pittsburgh, 52-31, this season, but can't earn the Big East's BCS berth unless it's within five spots in the rankings. The announcement was a surprise to most of Maryland's players, especially quarterback Scott McBrien, who transferred from West Virginia in 2001 after spending two years in Morgantown.
"It's weird that that's going to be my last game," McBrien said. "I guess I'll focus on it when it comes."
McBrien even managed to joke about facing West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez once again, a coach that he did not see eye-to-eye with during his time with the Mountaineers.
"I feel bad for him, almost," McBrien said. "I'm sure he was glad that I was just out of his way, and now that we're back in the picture, he's going to have to deal with more and more questions. I don't know what to say."
Though Maryland easily won the first meeting, Catlett was quick to remind people that plenty has changed since then. After getting nearly shut out by the Terps, West Virginia turned around the next week and almost upset Miami on national television, falling in the final seconds. The Mountaineers proved their turnaround was for real, defeating Virginia Tech and Pitt during a six-game win streak.
"West Virginia obviously lost that game, and an opportunity for a rematch is something they look forward to very much," Catlett said. "The two football teams that played on Sept. 20 are not the two football teams that are playing today at Maryland and West Virginia. They're totally different. Both schools are in much better shape. They're two of probably the hottest teams [in the nation]."
Friedgen was pleased that the suspense was over, but said he was looking forward to focusing on Wake Forest this week. The Demon Deacons (5-6, 3-4) need a win to become bowl eligible, and Maryland has won just one of three conference road games this season.
"West Virginia is a rivalry for us, it's a border state, and it's always going to be a good game," Friedgen said. "I'm really excited about it. But my primary concern needs to be Wake Forest right now."
NOTES: Friedgen said running back Josh Allen is questionable for Saturday with a sprained ankle suffered on Maryland's final drive against N.C. State. ... Wide receiver Latrez Harrison has a groin injury and tight end Jeff Dugan has a concussion, but Friedgen was optimistic they'd be able to practice this week and play Saturday. ... Friedgen is giving his out-of-state players the day off tomorrow to travel home and see their families for the holiday. Maryland's in-state players will have a light practice Thanksgiving morning.
Next for Terps
Matchup: Maryland (8-3, 5-2) vs. Wake Forest (5-6, 3-4)
Site: Groves Stadium, Winston-Salem, N.C.
When: Saturday, 3:30 p.m.
TV/Radio: ESPN/WBAL (1090 AM)
Line: Maryland by 8