Anyone who knows anything about tonight’s collegiate football game between No. 5 West Virginia and No. 18 South Florida understands that this event is so important that the only thing not at stake is the future of the free world.

And, you might get some debate over that in some quarters, be they on the Sun Coast of Florida or in Wild, Wonderful and Open for Business West Virginia.

West Virginia enters the game with national championship aspirations, even though Louisville has done its best to undermine the Mountaineers’ strength of schedule by losing to lowly Syracuse.

While WVU coach Rich Rodriguez says that he doesn’t put a red circle around any game on his schedule, wanting his team to believe that each game is a playoff game in and of itself, it remains a mystery to the coach’s wife, Rita, why her “Love That Red” lipstick was nearly gone the morning after last year’s South Florida game.

For the Mountaineers, this game is everything.

It’s the Big East opener. A victory is necessary in order to keep dreams of an unbeaten season alive. It’s a game played for revenge, USF having last year ruined the Mountaineers’ hopes of landing a BCS bid.

Yes, it’s all that.

And more.

A touchdown would give Steve Slaton the school’s career record for touchdowns, a record that has stood only since 1919 at 46. That was set by Ira Errett Rodgers then, tied by Avon Cobourne in 2002 and by Slaton last week against East Carolina.

Then there’s Rodriguez coming into the game with 99 career collegiate coaching victories. Win this one for a hundred.

And, of course, there’s the setting. A sellout crowd, the first sellout in South Florida’s history.

“There will be a lot of emotion,” Rodriguez admitted. “Not just because of what’s at stake, but the crowd, the first Big East game will make it that way.”

Ah, the crowd.

A sellout in Raymond James Stadium, just like there was for another football game once held in this venue. That game had a name:

Super Bowl.

This game has become South Florida’s very own Super Bowl, the most important game in school history with students camping out early in the week to snap up the final 12,000 tickets.

“That was pretty neat,” said USF coach Jim Leavitt. “I went over there a little bit. I had shorts and T-shirt on looking at film last night and walked through the grass in bare feet a little bit. They were a lot of fun; they were really fun. Kind of neat!”

Was he surprised about the first home sellout in school history?

“No, I thought the day would come some day. That doesn’t surprise me, when, what, how, where. I’m not concerned with all of that. It doesn’t surprise me at all,” he said.

It doesn’t surprise Rodriguez, either. His home season has been sold out for quite a while and the Mountaineers have now become one of the great road draws in college football, traveling well with their own and attracting detractors due to their success and exciting style of play.

“We’re playing a high-quality team in supposedly the biggest game they ever played,” Rodriguez noted, then stunned almost everyone with the comparison he was about to make.

“I’ve talked to our team about this. I told them, you’re highly ranked and when you go to play a game somewhere people are going to sell out the stadium. It’s like the Yankees. Every time they go somewhere they get a big crowd. Every time we go somewhere, we’re selling out stadiums or helping them sell out.

“Our guys have to understand it’s going to be a hostile environment and it’s better than to go somewhere where nobody cares.”

The truth of the matter is that it will be hard to find anyone who doesn’t care here on the Florida sun coast.

In fact, probably the item on the agenda that people care least about is whether or not Rodriguez gets his 100th victory.

Even he downplays having the chance to win his 100th game on national television in such an important matchup.

“Is it a hundred?” he said with a straight face. “I got half of them at Glenville then, didn’t I?”

Indeed he did, almost. He won 43 games at Glenville, after winning two at Salem, and now has 54 at WVU.

“To me, that doesn’t matter. I’m hoping I’ll be here long enough to have a few more victories. I’ve got some friends of mine in coaching and I’ve told them, you don’t ever want to get too high because the highs are never high enough and the lows are always too low.

“I’d be happy not because it’s No. 100, but because it would be beating South Florida. It would make us 5-0 and it’s our first Big East game. That’s all.”

That’s all? Isn’t that more than enough for a night’s work.

E-mail Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com.

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