UConn Huskies believe they belong

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Connecticut, humbly, would like a moment of your time, if you can spare it. You see, the Huskies know what you think about them. They know what the pundits are telling you. They know that much of the College Football Nation doesn't believe they belong in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl opposite a program of Oklahoma's stature. They, again humbly, beg to differ. And perhaps you can find a spot in your heart to see their merits and recognize the charms of their story.

First of all, they are fully aware of their circumstances. UConn was not ranked in the final BCS standings. It will be the first team unranked in the final BCS standings to play in a BCS bowl game. The lowest ranked team playing in any other BCS bowl game this year is No. 13 Virginia Tech.

The Huskies finished 8-4 overall. Every other BCS bowl team won at least 10 games. They lost to Temple 30-16. On Oct. 23, they fell to 3-4 after suffering a 26-zip whipping at Louisville. It's no secret that the only reason they are here is because they won the tiebreaker over West Virginia atop the struggling Big East.

And if they weren't fully aware of this, everyone has told them about it -- over and over and over again -- just about every day since they tried to celebrate their Fiesta Bowl berth.

"I'm tired of hearing it," Huskies linebacker Scott Lutrus said. "I've heard it so much. We started hearing it on selection day. But I understand it, where people are coming from. We're an 8-4 team, not even ranked, going to a BCS bowl game. But we earned it. We deserve it. We won our conference."

UConn played by the rules of the BCS system. It's the champion of a BCS automatic qualifying conference. If we are to believe the winner of the BCS championship games -- past, present and future -- are "true" national champions, then we also must believe that UConn deserves to be in sunny Arizona where it can enjoy the notoriously over-the-top hospitality of the Fiesta Bowl.

If you want to get mad, get mad at the BCS system. But when you finish with that, take a moment to consider the possibility that UConn might be worth embracing.

Start with this quote from Huskies coach Randy Edsall, "To me, this is a dream come true." Edsall, who looks a bit like a Marine drill sergeant, later added -- not sounding much like a Marine at all -- "You know, sometimes you pinch yourself."

How many coaches talk like that? Even better is that it's true. Edsall is the architect -- mother, really -- of an extraordinary program construction project. His Huskies jumped up from I-AA football and played their first season of FBS football in 2002. According to this calculator, that's just eight years ago. By way of comparison, the Sooners have seven national titles. UConn played its first Big East game in 2004. It recorded its first victory over a ranked team in 2007.

Paging Horatio Alger: How can you not respect that?

UConn didn't become competitive because it landed a bunch of high-profile recruits, either. The Huskies rank at or near the bottom of the Big East recruiting rankings most years, which means their signing classes rank at or near the bottom among AQ conference teams most years.

America's team? Huskies hail from 17 states, and three are from Canada.

And about that embarrassing 3-4 start. It was followed by a five-game winning streak to conclude the season, with three wins by a combined eight points, including a 16-13 overtime triumph over West Virginia. Shouldn't that resurrection be celebrated? The Huskies could have waved a white flag on their season. Instead, they persevered and grew.

Further, while many teams that make fast climbs in national stature often get there with high-flying passing attacks, the Huskies have taken a blue collar route. They rank 112th in the nation in passing. They run right at you. If you stop that, they run some more. This is a physical team that's unquestioned strength lies with a veteran offensive line -- 75 career starts among them -- and a running back, Jordan Todman, who fights and claws for every yard against defenses that know he's coming.

Finally, this program has arrived at this point 14 months removed from an unimaginable tragedy: Cornerback Jasper Howard, just before he became a father, was stabbed to death on-campus in October of 2009.

"We think about him every single day," defensive tackle Kendall Reyes said. "He's a big part of where we are now. He's still with us."

Don't belong? Connecticut players busted their butts during offseason and summer workouts and preseason camp. They played through injuries. They fought through adversity. They found ways to win.

And when all the sweat was wiped away, the Fiesta Bowl handed them an invitation.

Perhaps if you take time to get to know UConn, you will grow to respect them and see that they belong.

And if you don't, well, then you can suck on a lemon.

"I know the question is out there," Reyes said. "But we deserve to be here. That's the rules. But I'm not concerned with that. We have a game to win. Honestly, I really don't care."