by Russell Levine
It took a magical night in the birthplace of college football to get Rutgers into the national championship debate.
Barely 48 hours later -- not even long enough for the tidal wave of Rutgers calls to New York's sports-talk radio stations to subside -- a series of upsets had the potential to turn Rutgers' nice little moment in the spotlight into something much greater.
Even the most euphoric of Rutgers fans following their school's stunning, come-from-behind win over Louisville Thursday night knew that even finishing the regular season undefeated probably wouldn't be enough to get the Scarlet Knights into the national championship game. But that was before a string of upsets decimated the ranks of the once-beaten Saturday. By day's end, Rutgers's chances had improved from nearly impossible to merely improbable.
With Auburn, Cal, and Texas all picking up a second loss, the number of teams standing between Rutgers and the coveted second spot in the Bowl Championship Series standings has been thinned. And it no longer takes an abacus and vivid imagination to cook up a scenario that could see Rutgers rise that high. Sunday's BCS standings release showed Rutgers at No. 6, within striking distance of the top.
What's more, several of the teams in the top 10 have yet to play one another, beginning with next Saturday's epic 1 vs. 2 showdown between Ohio State and Michigan. How, exactly, could the Scarlet Knights get to the January 8 title game in Glendale, Arizona? Call the following the Six Degrees of Rutgers:
1. Ohio State beats Michigan
2. Cal beats USC
3. LSU beats Arkansas
4. Arkansas beats Florida in the SEC championship
5. USC beats Notre Dame
6. Rutgers wins out
None of the first five steps will matter if Rutgers doesn't complete the final one, beginning with a classic trap game this weekend at Cincinnati and concluding with a road trip to West Virginia on December 2. But if the Scarlet Knights bring the same defensive intensity to their final three games that they showed in completely dominating one of the most explosive offenses in the nation for the final three quarters Thursday, they stand an excellent chance to finish the task.
While Rutgers certainly benefited from Saturday's results, it wasn't the only school smiling at the sight of the out-of-town scoreboard. The day's biggest winner was USC, which jumped to no. 3 in the BCS standings, putting the Trojans in position to play the Ohio State-Michigan winner in the championship game. USC easily dispatched Oregon Saturday, and with home contests against Cal and Notre Dame the next two weeks, its strength of schedule -- a key component in the computer rankings -- will remain high. And USC not only got a boost from other teams losing, it also got a lift from Arkansas, which routed Tennessee Saturday night.
Every Arkansas win is good news for USC, since the Trojans are the proud owners of a 50-14 thumping of the Razorbacks on the season's opening Saturday. That win, which took place on Arkansas's home field, grows in importance each week that the Razorbacks remain unscathed in the SEC. Arkansas may turn out to be the best team in the nation's toughest conference, but as long as it and USC have the same record, that September result should tilt the scales in favor of the Trojans.
All this debate is over the second spot in the BCS title game. The first spot will be claimed by Saturday's winner in Columbus after Michigan and Ohio State each sidestepped the final roadblocks to their first-ever meeting as the top-ranked teams and their first meeting as unbeatens since 1973. Just as Rutgers's chances of reaching the championship match got a boost, so to did the possibility that the Wolverines and Buckeyes could play a rematch in Glendale.
A rematch can probably only happen if Ohio State wins a close game, and everyone else loses. If Michigan wins, or if Ohio State wins by a wide margin, the loser is likely to fall far enough in the human polls to negate any possibility of a return date. But if visiting Michigan loses a tight game as the underdog, it's entirely possible the Wolverines could hold the second spot in the BCS standings next Sunday. But even that won't guarantee a rematch. The poll voters would still have two weekends of football to effectively vote to nullify such a scenario by jumping another one-loss team over Michigan.
No matter what happens to Rutgers the rest of the way, the fact that this once-woeful program is even being discussed in such lofty circles is a sure sign of its arrival. In fact, Rutgers had validated its rebuilding project even before kicker Jeremy Ito nailed the game-winner against Louisville, simply by virtue of its comeback against the Cardinals.
Few gave Rutgers a chance in that game, fewer still would have offered the Scarlet Knights and their ground-based offense any hope of rallying from an 18-point deficit caused in part by three killer mistakes committed by the home side. That Rutgers could overcome a kick return for a touchdown, a successful Louisville fake punt, and a critical roughing-the-kicker penalty that extended another Louisville drive was the most stunning development in Thursday's game. Not only did Rutgers win, they did it in the most improbable fashion.
To this point, this college season has had something for everyone. For traditionalists, there is the prospect of two of the most storied rivals in all of sport -- Michigan and Ohio State -- meeting with more at stake than in any of their 102 previous renewals. College football's popularity is built on tradition, something that is ever more challenged in the era of BCS standings, talent-distributing scholarship limits, and weekday night TV games. But the flipside of changing traditions are stories like those taking place at Rutgers and at Wake Forest, where the 9-1 Demon Deacons are poised to reach the ACC title game. In any other year, Wake would likely be the story of this college season, but the Deacons have had to take a back seat in the Cinderella department to Rutgers.
With three weekends of play remaining in the regular season, the year's storylines are not yet complete. And for Rutgers and its fans, a year that has already included a signature moment to last a lifetime stands to get even better.
John L. Smith Trophy
The JLS Trophy was born to reward wacky coaching decisions, but somewhere along the line, probably around the time JLS conducted that epic halftime interview during last year's Ohio State meltdown, it became an award for the worst coaching decision of the week.
I'm trying to get back to award's origins this week by giving it to Kansas State coach Ron Prince, even though his team just pulled off a stunning upset of Texas. So what could Prince have done to merit JLS consideration, you ask?
Check the play-by-play logs. Leading, 45-42, Prince's team faced a third-and-6 at the Texas 38, with the Longhorns out of timeouts. Simple call, right? You run up the middle, wait for the septuagenarian ref to take 15 seconds to spot the ball, and then begin celebrating, right?
Not Prince. He called a pass play, which quarterback Josh Freeman completed for the first down. Let's say that pass had fallen incomplete, leaving 48 seconds on the clock. Kansas State would have been punting back to Texas and most likely leaving the Longhorns something like 35-40 seconds with which to work, needing only a field goal to tie.
Congratulations, Ron Prince on the big win. And congrats, too, on your JLS Trophy. (HT: Brian Cook)
Further explanation required for the following:
- With Florida looking mortal and Texas, Louisville, Cal and Auburn all out of the championship picture, USC gets a big boost to the third spot. A bid in the title game is the Trojans' to lose at this point, and they deserve it. That's what they get for a non-conference schedule of at Arkansas, Nebraska, and Notre Dame. You think Florida's going to regret scheduling that Western Carolina game this week?
- I'm now firmly convinced that Arkansas is the best team in an SEC that is deep, but lacks any dominant teams. Ask yourself, would Arkansas, Florida, Tennessee, or Auburn go undefeated in the Pac-10, Big-10, or Big-12? I don't think so. I think you'd have a bunch of one- or two-loss teams, just as you do now.
- I feel better about Rutgers at No. 6 than I do about Wake Forest at No. 8, mostly because I think the Big East is better than the ACC this season.
- The rest, quite frankly, is a crapshoot. I'm open to suggestions.
Portions of this article appeared in Monday's New York Sun.