Louisville was supposed to be too young.
Rutgers was supposed to be overmatched in the trenches.
That is the most basic explanation for why the Cardinals were picked to finish No. 7 and Rutgers No. 8 in the Big East preseason poll back in August. Yet here they are, headed into the final two weeks of the regular season, and each has a chance to clinch a share of the conference title, and even a spot in the BCS.
If Rutgers wins at UConn and Louisville wins at USF, both finish atop the league standings with a 5-2 record. Of course, several other teams have a shot to finish 5-2 as well. To help their chances of getting into a BCS game, Rutgers needs Louisville and West Virginia to lose; Louisville needs Cincinnati and Pitt to lose.
Nobody knows how the final two weeks will play out, but everybody knows that the preseason poll has turned out to be dead wrong. The biggest reason has been the unbelievable coaching jobs Charlie Strong and Greg Schiano have done this season.
Let's consider Rutgers first. After finishing 4-8 last season -- including 1-6 in league play -- not many had high hopes for Rutgers. But the improvement has been stark. Schiano took charge of the defense this season, calling all the plays and shifting several players to different positions to make his unit faster. The result -- Rutgers leads the league in total defense (316.6 ypg), scoring defense (16.8 ppg), pass defense (173.45 ypg) and interceptions (17). The Scarlet Knights are in the Top 10 in the nation in three of those categories (No. 9 scoring defense, No. 9 pass defense, tied for No. 4 in interceptions).
Last season, Rutgers ranked No. 65 in total defense and No. 62 in scoring defense (26.5). Linebacker Khaseem Greene, a safety last season, is the leading candidate to win Big East Defensive Player of the Year honors. He leads the league with 114 tackles. Meanwhile, the play on both lines has been better. A year after allowing 61 sacks, Rutgers has given up just 24. Rutgers had 17 sacks last season. That number has nearly doubled to 33.
Criticize Schiano if you want for his handling of his quarterbacks this season, switching from Chas Dodd to true freshman Gary Nova, back to Dodd. But Schiano did the right thing in going back to Dodd when it was clear Nova was struggling. Since he made the change in the fourth quarter against USF, Rutgers has won three straight.
Now Rutgers (8-3) is in position to be the first team in Big East history to go from worst to first. Keep in mind, Rutgers has never won a Big East title in football.
"Sometimes things get blown out of proportion. We were a pretty decent football team last year at the midway point and then things happened where the wheels fell off," Schiano said Monday. "Our guys are very aware of what they have to do this week, and it's about playing Connecticut. All that other stuff will take care of itself down the road. I'm not naive to the fact that young people get easily distracted. That's my job this week to make sure everybody is 100 percent locked into the process."
As for Louisville, the Cardinals were on the brink of collapse after a 2-4 start, including losses to FIU and Marshall. The Cardinals couldn't run; they couldn't block on the offensive line; and their defense was giving up way too many big plays. Coaching one of the youngest teams in the country, Strong could have very easily lost his team.
Instead, the Cardinals have won four of their last five games, with wins over Rutgers and West Virginia. How have they done it? For one, their young team is growing up. Louisville has started 11 true freshmen this season -- including quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. There are 28 freshmen and sophomores on the two-deep, and just six senior starters.
For another, they have figured out how to run the football effectively, and also have done a nice job switching player positions to great effect. Dominique Brown moved from quarterback to running back. Lorenzo Mauldin switched from tight end to defensive end and started last week against UConn. Josh Bellamy has played cornerback this year as well. Changing coordinators from Mike Sanford to Shawn Watson midseason also has helped the offense improve.
Louisville (6-5) is averaging 28.5 points in its last four contests, compared to 16.3 in its first seven. Now the Cardinals have four wins in Big East play for the first time since 2006.
"We have sputtered along the way," Strong said Monday. "I don't know how good we are. I know we need to get better, but our coaching staff has done a tremendous job each week of getting these players ready. To see our guys go out and fight ... it just speaks volumes for how hard they want to win."