SMQ and all partisans of chaotic, playoff-inducing BCS meltdown crown their patron underdogs tonight in Rutgers, the scrappy, ointment-ensconsed fly that assured indecipherable controversy in all things mythical championship by rallying to bump off the last, best hope at a defensible counterpart to the Ohio State-Michigan winner. The Knights their own selves may raise a futile ruckus for inclusion, solvable by upcoming trips to Cincinnati (watch out) and West Virginia, but by any spin, the blood strewn on the wall is clearly that of the BCS orthodoxy.
Long live offsides on errant field goals!
Its primary function in the gradual erosion of the system now complete, Rutgers basks in its greatest glory and begs one of sports' most improbable all-time questions:
Is Rutgers good enough to play for the mythical championship?
This seems the more relevant question than "Can Rutgers play for the championship," again, because, like Louisville before Thursday's loss, the Knights' fate on the matter is sealed; where the Cardinals were undoubtedly en route to No. 2 regardless the protest, though, it's no secret Rutgers has pretty much zero opportunity to persuade the hu-man polls it can hang with the frontrunning teams that began the season 50 or 60 spots ahead of it, and that only among the conscientious enough to consider where Rutgers fit in related to those teams to begin with. If some pundits expressed doubt over the championship merits of an unefeated Louisville, a virtually unanimous top 20 and sometimes top 10 pick before the season, what prayer could vouch for a team that began the year 38th by Athlon, 58th by Phil Steele, 66th by The Sporting News and mostly ignored by everyone else?
Outside of the unambiguous realpolitik view, the problem remains the one SMQ presented with the entire Big East before Thursday's game, which is that the league exists in a sort of vacuum, almost in a limbo all its own, because - with Miami flopping away a chance at a serious non-conference win of merit for Louisville, at least - the schedules offer no adequate way to compare the conference with the other traditional major conferences. Check out Rutgers' resume and come up with a coherent assessment, SMQ dares you:
at North Carolina WIN 21-16
Illinois WIN 33-0
Ohio U. WIN 21-7
Howard WIN 56-7
at South Florida WIN 22-20
at Navy WIN 34-0
at Pittsburgh WIN 20-10
Connecticut WIN 24-13
Louisville WIN 28-25
at West Virginia
This is not the creamiest of cream puff schedules. The Knights were trying, at least, by scheduling North Carolina and Illinois, far as those programs have plummeted since they were put on the agenda, and there is a respectable three-game road stretch against South Florida, Navy and Pittsburgh, all currently bowl-eligible teams, if not juggernauts. But the final judgment on this matter, and on all others concerning the Big East, is exactly how much credit to give beating Louisville and, by extension, West Virginia. Because the Cardinals can hardly be measured up on a national scale outside of their win over WVU, but the Mountaineers their own selves have little to recommend them unless one is willing to look all the way back to last year's Sugar Bowl - which many voters, it seems, were doing in the preseason and most of the year until WVU went down last week, but SMQ considers much more warily.
If an open-minded, methodical voter is willing to consider the Cardinals and Mountaineers at face value - that is, their very high poll positions - then Thursday's win and a hypothetical (though hardly assured) Dec. 2 victory over the Mountaineers could be enough to sway that voter into taking a flier on the Knights as a championship participant. Except at this point - in large part because of the inevitable lingering doubt over the Knights' actual virtues - few voters are going to maintain that regard for Louisville and West Virginia, and Rutgers will suffer as a result.
As of this late second, SMQ has no idea yet where he falls in this mix; in such cases, the middle is a good bet. He will concede, at the least, that Rutgers should be given its fair due until it goes down to defeat, however much that due is judged to be worth.
For Thursday and Thursday alone, he is impressed with the Knights, especially the pass rush, which made Brian Brohm, most recently the Terminator against West Virginia, seem like a shaky underclassman making his first tough start. And that's a pass rush that lost a huge amount of production from last season, most of which seems to have fallen to Eric Foster to make up. Earlier in the season, SMQ remembers flipping over to a couple plays of the Knights' win over Pittsburgh, and every time, the then-hottest quarterback in the country, Tyler Palko, was fuming in frustration over another failed possession, once even trying to force his offense to stay on the field for a ludicrous fourth down attempt deep in Pitt territory before being overruled by coaches. Brohm, either hit, forced to pull the ball down and run for nothing or dump it off very quickly for nothing on nearly every pass attempt over the final two and a half quarters, was more outwardly composed than Palko, but the general effect was the same. Any SEC or Big Ten defense entering ranked second nationally in total yards and scoring that held Louisville - second in total offense coming in, fourth in scoring, averaging just shy of 40 points and 500 yards - to seven straight punts and 54 total yards in a second half shutout, even while failing to produce a turnover, would be proclaimed dominant and one of the very best in the country, and so should Rutgers'.
It's a resilient team, too, as overachievers tend to be, to come back from 18 down when all the momentum was pulling in Louisville's direction. For his part, Mike Teel was far better and more efficient than his numbers would ever suggest, and after an early, terrible interception on Rutgers' second series, the main knock against him was that his receivers couldn't hang on to the ball. Hardly spectacular, but Teel's numbers (8-21, 19 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) bely a steady, Krenzel-esque performance. He wasn't overwhelmed, carried much more of the load than SMQ could have guessed was possible in a Rutgers win - especially when the Knights lose time of possession by almost ten full minutes - and deserves a lot of credit for this game, as an apt symbol for the whole workmanlike outfit, if nothing else.