PISCATAWAY — The Big East Conference football season has come down to a game between one school headed to the Big Ten and another off to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Louisville (9-2, 4-2) visits Rutgers (9-2, 5-1) tonight with the conference’s bid to the Bowl Championship Series berth on the line.
Both likely will be leaving the Big East after next season.
The Scarlet Knights announced last week they would be joining the Big Ten. The Cardinals made it official on Wednesday that they are going to the ACC. The exact exit dates are still to be determined. The conference requires 27 months’ notice, but has been willing to negotiate early departures for other members.
Conference realignment has set a strange backdrop for what has been a somewhat odd season on the field, too, for the Big East.
Louisville and Rutgers seemed primed to both come into this game nationally ranked not too long ago.
But Louisville has dropped two straight after winning its first nine and Rutgers was embarrassed by Pittsburgh last weekend in what could have been a title-clinching game.
If Rutgers wins, it will earn its first outright conference title and its first BCS berth.
If Louisville beats Rutgers for a third straight time, and Cincinnati beats Connecticut on Saturday, there will be a four-way tie for the conference title with the Cincinnati and Syracuse. Louisville and Rutgers would emerge from the tiebreaker, and Louisville would most likely get its second BCS bid based on a higher BCS ranking.
The bowl berth likely would be either the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1 or the Orange Bowl on Jan. 2.
“I had no idea it would come down to this game,” said Louisville coach Charlie Strong, whose team was the preseason favorite to win the title. “I don’t think anyone in this room would’ve said it would be us having a chance with the limited number of seniors we have, feeling like we’re a young team and being a year or two away from where we need to be.
“But now the opportunity’s here is here for us and you don’t ever pass up an opportunity,” Strong added. “You can always say next year is our year, but now you have a chance this year for it to be that year, so let’s take care of business.”
This is familiar territory for Rutgers. It missed a chance to win a BCS berth in 2006 when it dropped a triple-overtime decision to West Virginia in the regular-season finale, giving Louisville the crown.
“We don’t want to share it,” said Scarlet Knights linebacker Khaseem Greene, who was the conference’s co-defensive player of the year last season. “Sharing is not a good feeling. I know firsthand from last season, sharing Big East player of the year was horrible. It was almost sickening. I try to tell the guys that. I don’t want this team to experience that because we deserve it. We worked very hard since the season ended in Pinstripe Bowl to be in this position. And now it’s time to take the next step and win.”
Louisville comes into the game with quarterback Teddy Bridgewater being a major question mark. The sophomore, who leads the league and ranks sixth nationally in passing efficiency and is second in the league in total offense (296.1 yards), broke his left wrist — his non-throwing hand — against Connecticut last weekend.
Bridgewater is expected to play but his cast probably will force him to take snaps in a shotgun position the entire game.
The Cardinals also have to get more out of their running game. It has been limited to 75 yards over the last two games, including 27 against the Huskies Saturday.
“There’s a big sense of urgency this week,” said quarterback Will Stein, who would take over if Bridgewater can’t go. “If we go in and get the win, these last few losses won’t mean a thing because we’ll be Big East champs and we’ll going to a BCS bowl. It’s the same on the line for Rutgers and they’ll be playing their tails off just like we will be.”
Rutgers has its own quarterback problems. Sophomore Gary Nova has thrown 10 interceptions in the last four games and the offense has scored only 16 points in the last two.
While it has a 1000-yard rusher in Jawan Jamison, Rutgers’ strength is its defense, which has allowed 71 points in six conference games. It ranks fourth nationally in scoring defense (13.7 points), 14th in total defense (317.4 yards) and 11th in run defense (110.7 yards). It is tied for third nationally with 17 touchdowns allowed, including six on the ground, which is fourth best nationally.
“The stakes are definitely out there for us,” senior defensive tackle Scott Vallone said. “Winner goes on. Those are the things we’re definitely excited for. Pressure is on but this is why we play, for this kind of atmosphere.”
AP Sports Writer Gary Graves in Louisville contributed to this report.