Ready to be Knighted
Rutgers' rise not a fluke, rankings fallout and more
Posted: Wednesday August 15, 2007 12:46PM; Updated: Thursday January 17, 2008 3:30PM
Last year's Rutgers-Louisville Thursday night game was one of the most memorable I've ever covered --- not just because of Jeremy Ito's dramatic, last-second field goal re-do or the subsequent, mammoth storming-of-the-field, but because of the perilous struggles SI.com senior editor B.J. Schecter and I endured just to get to and from the game.
What should have been a 45-minute drive from Manhattan to Piscataway, N.J., wound up taking more than four hours, due to traffic every step of the way. Then, after the game, we had the privilege of waiting outside the stadium for a tow truck to show up and rescue our rental car from an ankle-deep mud embankment that practically devoured the front left tire. I'll never forget the look on the guy's face at the Avis lot the next day when I returned a mud-caked Chevy Impala that looked as if it had just been taken off-roading.
The drive there wasn't without its share of entertainment, however. We were treated to four hours of pregame coverage from New York sports-radio titans Mike and the Mad Dog, who, at least for one day, shelved their usual Yankees/Mets/Giants/Jets/Knicks banter and morphed into verifiable college football pundits.
As you may recall, the Cardinals and Scarlet Knights both went into the game undefeated, and at one point, while discussing the possible ramifications of a Rutgers victory, the pair started poring through that week's BCS standings and discussing hypothetical national-title matchups for their new favorite team. ("Ohio State -- they'd lose by three touchdowns. ... USC, forget it ... Now Tennessee? I could see that one going either way.") It was a just-for-fun debate, as there was an unspoken understanding at that point that the Scarlet Knights didn't have a chance of reaching the title game (and it became a moot point once they lost the next week to Cincinnati).
But what about this year? What if Ray Rice & Co. do in fact march to an undefeated season? Dan Wiliams of Chicago poses the following query:
Last year, the voters seemed collectively ready to send Louisville or West Virginia to the BCS title game if they went undefeated. I was skeptical, however, as to whether they would have done the same with Rutgers, even if Rutgers had gone 12-0 and beaten them both. Do you think the voters in the polls that count are willing to send Rutgers to the title game, or do you think traditional snobbery would prevail?
A lot has changed from last year to this year. First of all, many of the questions about the Big East's legitimacy (at least among its top teams) finally seem to be dissipating, thanks both to those Thursday night showcases last year as well as the conference's 5-0 bowl record. And Rutgers itself is in a much better position, starting this season ranked 16th in the coaches poll after taking until late September to even crack the AP poll last year. While there are still plenty out there (including my colleague Gennaro Filice) who believe Greg Schiano's team was something of a one-year wonder, I personally believe the Scarlet Knights will actually be significantly better this year than last due both to a more diverse offense (as was on display a little during last year's Texas Bowl, when then-freshman receiver Tim Brown burst on to the scene) and a veteran defense that was already pretty darn good (No. 4 nationally last season). Look for DT Eric Foster on your nearest All-America team this fall.
That said, there's no question the Scarlet Knights have yet to attain the same level of credibility as the Cardinals and Mountaineers, and they're certainly not helping themselves with a non-conference schedule of Buffalo, Army, Navy, Norfolk State and Maryland. I don't think the voters would necessarily disqualify Rutgers automatically -- certainly if the Scarlet Knights were to shut down both Brian Brohm (as they did last year) and Pat White/Steve Slaton, it would have to raise some eyebrows. However, as the voters showed last year with the Florida/Michigan question, they no longer fill out their final ballots on auto-pilot. They now take into consideration the question of which teams "deserve" to be in the national title game.
If, say, USC and Rutgers both finished undefeated, West Virginia finished 11-1 and everyone else had two losses, then the issue would be a no-brainer. But if there's a one-loss SEC champion sitting there like last year, or somebody like an 11-1 Texas, and if there's data to support that these teams played a much tougher schedule than Rutgers, I think the voters would give the edge to those teams. But wow did we just jump way too far down the road.