1. Ohio State
9. Notre Dame
10. West Virginia
Not intended to rub salt in any U of L wounds. But also to illustrate this. Just getting there doesn’t mean you’re going to stay there. Look at the Sagarin ratings of these then-Top 10 BCS teams: Michigan 82, Notre Dame 53, Auburn 73, Louisville 86. And those other three programs have advantages that U of L can only dream of having.
So what is happening here isn’t unheard of. My criticism isn’t that the program should’ve stayed in the top 10 or even top 20. But it should beat Syracuse — ranked lower in the Sagarins than four Division I-AA teams, lower even than Indiana. U of L is treading water against a schedule Sagarin rates No. 103 — the 16th easiest in the country.
Anyway, as a public service, just for purposes of distraction, two stories. One I wrote on the national talk about the Cards as they ascended to No. 3, and the game column I wrote after the Rutgers loss.
BCS ranking puts title game in UofL’s reach
The University of Louisville football team is at first and goal for the Bowl Championship Series national title game on Jan. 8 in Glendale, Ariz.
The Cardinals jumped two spots to No. 3 in the BCS ratings released yesterday, while the national debate over whether an unbeaten U of L deserves to play for a national championship only intensified.
But the debate doesn’t matter.
Every sports talk host in America could stage a billboard-sitting protest, Lee Corso could go on a hunger strike, or the Southeastern Conference could take to the streets with cowbells. But if the Cards win their next four games, it will just be background noise.
The Cardinals are on the doorstep of a No. 1 or 2 ranking, and a finish that high would give them a berth in the title game. No. 1 Ohio State and No. 2 Michigan will play Nov. 18, with the loser likely falling out of championship contention.
No matter how loudly the detractors roar, the Cardinals are four downs away.
Down Rutgers. Down South Florida. Down Pittsburgh. Down Connecticut.
“It’s going to be Louisville,” said Chris Landry, national analyst for radio , though he doesn’t think the Cardinals are more deserving than several of the one-loss teams in the top 10. “If they lose to Rutgers, then it’s wide open.”
ESPN football analyst Craig James predicted the same thing.
“If they go undefeated, they make it,” he said, then voted the Cardinals No. 6 with his ballot in the Associated Press poll.
The six computer polls used by the BCS ranked U of L an average of third. The USA Today coaches poll ranked the Cards fourth, with 8-1 Florida at No. 3. U of L is third in the AP poll, which is not used in the BCS formula, but which releases the ballots of its voters. Those ballots showed the varying opinions on U of L, which was rated as high as No. 2 by some voters and as low as No. 9 by Kansas City Star columnist Jason Whitlock.
Whitlock’s view is representative of a sizable segment of college football nation.
“After watching the West Virginia-Louisville game Thursday night I was shocked at how poorly the defenses played,” Whitlock said in an e-mail to the AP on Sunday. “I don’t think either one of those teams would survive against the best teams in the SEC. So there are four SEC teams that I think are better than Louisville. I also think Ohio State, Texas, USC and Michigan are better than Louisville.”
U of L and WVU combined for 1,018 yards. And they’ve put those kinds of numbers on everyone for two seasons. Southern Cal and Texas combined for 1,130 in last season’s championship , but most of the talk afterward was about how good the offenses were. Maybe there’s something to that.
The more U of L wins, the more scrutiny it can expect. You didn’t hear the same things when Ohio State beat a weak Illinois team just 17-10 Saturday. You aren’t hearing it about Michigan, which had to stage a goal-line stand to keep lowly Ball State from having a chance to tie in a 34-26 win Saturday. The same Nashville media that declared U of L unworthy of a top 10 ranking after a 44-17 win over Middle Tennessee seemed awfully quiet about Florida’s 25-19 win over Vanderbilt.
It’s the price of being the new kid. But that doesn’t mean U of L fans should any longer feel like little brother.
If U of L beats Rutgers, it’ll have done something nobody in football has done for a while — knock off back-to-back nationally ranked unbeatens in the month of November.
Some possible pitfalls remain, but they have nothing to do with pundits.
The biggest one is Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights are gearing up for their game Thursday much like the Cardinals did for West Virginia.
Another is the possibility that a lower-ranked team could leap over them with a marquee win or two, though no team ranked worse than fifth with four games to play has ever played for a BCS championship. Among the top threats, Florida and Texas may lack the late schedule strength, while USC has more ground to make up.
“It remains mathematically possible,” said Richard Billingsley, whose computer rankings are among those used by the BCS. “But the scenarios remain remote if Louisville takes care of business. If they beat Rutgers, they’re going to get a lot of respect from everybody, media, coaches and computers.”
Meanwhile, SEC supporters remain in attack mode on U of L’s schedule. But let the program (and its backers) whose athletic director returned U of L’s calls for games cast the first talk-radio insult. Since 2000, U of L has contacted every SEC school looking to play. Only Georgia has signed up, and the two will play starting in 2010. Vanderbilt recently backed out of a deal. Kentucky already plays the Cards.
If U of L had played Florida’s schedule, it wouldn’t be unbeaten . Can’t deny it. But it must not be forgotten that none of those big, bad SEC programs — Florida included — had the juice to schedule the Cards. They wanted no part of settling it on the field.
So now, it’ll be settled in the polls. If the Cards can keep winning, perhaps it will be settled on a field in Arizona .
Title dream slips away
At Rutgers, it all got away.
The unbeaten season. The national title hopes. The offensive mojo. Control over their Bowl Championship Series hopes. All gone, when Rutgers kicker Jeremy Ito booted a 28-yard mulligan field goal with 13 seconds left for a 28-25 upset victory.
U of L athletic director Tom Jurich watched the Rutgers celebration in his box silently. Just a week earlier, he had seen U of L fans do the same thing, storm the field after knocking off the nation’s No. 3 team.
“This one hurts,” Jurich said. “All you can do is keep working, and finish it off right.”
Finish. It’s a word that rings painfully around the U of L program right now. It’s a word that coaches had printed on T-shirts for the team’s summer workouts. It was a theme of preseason practice.
The situation the Cards found themselves in last night was exactly what they had prepared for. They led 25-7 and had open-field running to the BCS national title game in Glendale, Ariz.
They did not finish. Instead, they succumbed to an old nemesis — the double-digit lead.
They led Virginia Tech by 11 last year in the Gator Bowl, and lost. They led West Virginia 24-7 last year in the fourth quarter, and lost. Two years ago, they led Miami 24-7, and lost.
And despite all the criticism U of L’s defense has taken the past week after giving up better than 500 yards to West Virginia, it was the offense that could not function last night.
Unbeaten Rutgers, ranked No. 15, scored the game’s final 21 points. U of L did not get a first down in the third quarter, and had only 53 yards in the entire second half.
Credit Rutgers. No defense has stopped a U of L offense that cold since Bobby Petrino arrived as coach in 2003.
But there were plays on the field to be made by the Cardinal offense, and they were not made.
The program adopted the marketing slogan “R U Ready?” to promote the season. At least where the national championship is concerned, they were not ready.
Goodbye Glendale, hello Pisgotaway.
What happened? U of L had moved the ball in the first half. But it also missed two key opportunities to pour it on while Rutgers was struggling offensively. It settled for a field goal after driving to the Rutgers 15, then gave up a Rutgers touchdown three plays later. It drove into Rutgers territory on its final drive of the half, but a sack and an incomplete pass stopped the threat, and U of L would not mount another one.
At halftime, Jurich came out of his box and walked out of the back of the press box for some fresh air. His thoughts were the same as every other U of L fan’s at that point: The Cards had left opportunities on the field.
Junior quarterback Brian Brohm had his toughest night as a Cardinal. After completing his first three passes, he hit on only 5 of his next 17, including an inexplicable interception with no Louisville receiver in the area, a turnover that led to Rutgers’ first score. He wound up completing 13 of 27 passes for 163 yards under intense pressure. He was sacked five times and flushed out of the pocket that many more.
“He wasn’t seeing what was going on downfield and took off and actually made a couple of nice runs,” Petrino said. “We were totally out of sync in the second half and that can’t happen.”
The final sequence unfolded agonizingly slowly. Rutgers got the ball with 5:21 left and drove down to the Louisville 16. With 21 seconds left, Louisville took a timeout with Ito facing a 33-yard field goal try for the win.
Ito missed the field goal wide left, but there was a problem: A flag on the left side of U of L’s defense. Cornerback William Gay had clearly jumped across the line of scrimmage too soon and hadn’t gotten back in time. Ito got a second chance, from 28 yards out.
He made it.
In Manhattan, the Empire State Building was aglow in scarlet in honor of the Scarlet Knights.
In Pisgotaway, the lights went out on U of L’s national title hopes.
It was a strange trip all around for the Cardinals. On Wednesday, their charter flight was delayed for three hours. The team held its pregame walk-through in an empty airplane hangar. Now, the challenge as voiced by Petrino for his once high flying team is this: “The main thing we have to do is get up off the ground.”