COLLEGE PARK — — Ralph Friedgen often sounds wistful when he talks about the subject of a true Maryland football rival, or rather the lack of one.
It's as if Friedgen, in his 10th year as head coach, is missing a dance partner. Friedgen, an offensive lineman at Maryland in the late 1960s, is fond of reminding people how he routinely played against West Virginia and Penn State. Or how, as Georgia Tech's offensive coordinator, he relished playing Georgia because "that's what gets the crowds going."
Maryland may not have a traditional last-game-of-the-year adversary in the sense of Auburn-Alabama or Ohio State-Michigan, but this season the Terrapins have the next best thing. Maryland's game with West Virginia on Saturday resumes a dormant series possessing key elements of a healthy football hatred. There's history (46 meetings dating back to 1919), close competition (West Virginia leads 23-21-2) and border-state proximity.
Coupled with the resumption of the Navy series earlier this month, the season has created the promise that one of the grudge matches could flourish and fill a long-missing void for many Maryland participants and fans.
But what school, if any, is best suited to emerge as Maryland's leading rival? Is it West Virginia, where the Terps (2-0) travel Saturday to play the 21st-ranked Mountaineers (2-0) for the first time since 2007? Is it Navy, the nearest Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A) opponent to College Park? Is it Virginia, which the Terps have played more than any other team? Or even Penn State, which dominated Maryland continually until the schools' last meeting in 1993?
Maryland and Penn State have a natural connection in that both schools recruit heavily in each other's states. There's plenty of fan interest — at least from Maryland — about resuming the games.
Penn State said the schools had discussions several years ago, but no agreement was reached and nothing appears forthcoming. "I have not spoken with anyone at Penn State since taking over as [athletic department chief financial officer] in May of 2008," Maryland's Randy Eaton said in an e-mail Wednesday. "I would never say anything is dead, just that nothing is currently on the radar."
With the help of players, coaches and fans, The Sun looked at the other prospects:
• West Virginia: Maryland and West Virginia recently announced that the series has been extended through 2017. That makes the Mountaineers the only Maryland rival — other than Virginia — locked in on the schedule for years to come. The annual games may, for now, vault West Virginia-Maryland ahead of the other rivalries.
Friedgen said he told Gator Bowl officials in 2003 that the schools "could probably play this game four times a week and sell it out." The Terps beat the Mountaineers 41-7 in that game — Maryland's last victory in the series.
Maryland players said they were excited about the series' restoration. "They're awesome fans [in Morgantown] — loud, obnoxious, everything you want," senior linebacker Alex Wujciak said.
"I think it's something that should happen every year," said senior safety Antwine Perez. "West Virginia and Maryland being so close to each other, it's definitely a rivalry-type game."
Many fans agreed. "I would want it to be West Virginia," one reader wrote after the rivalry question was posed on baltimoresun.com's 'Tracking the Terps' blog. "I root for the [Navy] Midshipmen as long as they don't play Maryland. I don't root for West Virginia for anything."
But there is one downside that West Virginia shares with other potential rivals — they are already, in a sense, spoken for. The Mountaineers play Pitt each year in the "Backyard Brawl." Navy has Army, and Virginia has Virginia Tech.
Despite West Virginia's rivalry with Pitt, first-year athletic director Oliver Luck thinks the Mountaineers and Terps — after playing on a yearly basis — have history on their side.
"We haven't had a continuous annual game, but if you look back to the early 80s, we played them a lot more often than not," said Luck, a former Mountaineers quarterback who played the Terps in 1980 and 1981. "For our alumni, certainly in the D.C. area and outside the state of West Virginia, we've got more alumni in the D.C. area than anywhere else. It's a very important game, Maryland's a great institution. They've had strong football over the years. I think it's just an easy play for folks here to go and vice versa."
Luck believes that Maryland would be a great "natural" rivalry outside the Big East and even a bigger rivalry than with in-state Marshall, which West Virginia beat in overtime last Friday night in Huntington.