It has been lost on no one that the two teams playing tonight in New Jersey for a Big East title are not long for the Big East world.
Rutgers and Louisville have made more headlines in the last two weeks for where they are headed, not where they belong right now. And yet, there is a football game to be played with Big East title and BCS hopes on the line.
Imagine that, a football game in the middle of realignment madness!
Now, some of the luster may be gone from this matchup because 1) both teams are coming into the game off a loss 2) neither team is ranked in the current BCS standings and 3) both teams are headed out the door in (relatively) short order. It does not help Louisville that speculation already has surfaced that coach Charlie Strong has interviewed at Auburn, a report he has denied.
Distractions seem to be the order of the day on both sides, but both coaches said this week they have done their best to keep their players' focused on the huge prize that awaits: a spot in the Orange or Sugar Bowls. Rutgers (9-2, 5-1) already has a share of the Big East title, despite losing last week to Pitt. That is because the Cardinals (9-2, 4-2) also lost, in triple overtime to UConn.
If Rutgers wins tonight, the Scarlet Knights get the BCS berth. If Louisville wins, then we would have to wait for the final BCS standings to make its expected spot in the BCS official. That is what is most important, no matter chatter about realignment or coaches' fates.
"There's a lot at stake for us," Rutgers linebacker Steve Beauharnais said in a phone interview this week. "We’re just going to have to play our game. There’s a reason we got to this point. There’s a reason we have nine wins. We have to keep doing exactly what we’re doing and everything will be fine."
Well, Rutgers has to do what they were doing in its nine wins. Because last week against the Panthers, the Scarlet Knights did not play their best game. Perhaps the weight of clinching at least a share of their first Big East title ever was too much. This is a team that has struggled before with Big East hopes on the line (see: UConn, 2011; Cincinnati, West Virginia 2006).
Rutgers coach Kyle Flood batted down that theory, though it is hard to just call this another game. The key is to get his players to put what happened last week behind them.
"The focus is on the game and on the schematics and on the players," Flood said. "We're certainly not naive to what the result of the game will dictate for either team. It's a big game. It's the kind of game that you want to be in as a player and as a coach, and it's the kind of game as a program that we hope to be in every year."
Strong has to do the same. Louisville began the season 9-0 but has dropped two straight. Confidence has sagged, and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is nursing a broken wrist and sprained ankle. Strong said this week he has reminded his players of all the good things they did en route to the best start in school history.
Center Mario Benavides, one of the handful of senior leaders on this team, believes the Cardinals felt pressure to keep up their unbeaten season. Now, that pressure is gone -- and they can still earn a championship.
"You never want to lose games," Benavides said. "But what happened the last two games, it took away pressure that may have been self-imposed off us. You can say what you want -- it’s only human nature to feel a little bit of pressure. There was a stinging feeling after these two losses. But now, I think there's more of an excitement rather than being anxious and being upset and worried about what happened. There's still a championship in front of us."