Just as his predecessor had done, Rutgers head coach Kyle Flood stood before the media before the season began and declared, "[W]e have the people in the program right now and the time is right not only to win bowl championships but Big East championships and BCS championships."
A preseason coaches poll picked Louisville to take the Big East, with the Scarlet Knights projected to finish third. Much to the surprise of everyone, Flood actually accomplished something that Greg Schiano could never do in more than 10 years as Rutgers' head coach—finish atop the conference.
But while the Scarlet Knights did finish in a four-way tie for first place in the Big East conference record this year, it's somewhat akin to George Lazenby in the role of James Bond: Sure, it happened, but no one really accepts it.
By virtue of the fact that Louisville finished 10-2 overall and Rutgers finished 9-3, the Cardinals took the BCS bid to the Allstate Sugar Bowl, while the Scarlet Knights will play in the 2012 Russell Athletic Bowl.
For a program that announced its intention to leave the Big East for greener pastures, the late-season collapse could have far-reaching consequences. With destiny in their own hands, the Scarlet Knights could have made a major statement in Kyle Flood's first year: winning the Big East and going to a BCS bowl game—neither of which the school has ever done. That would have paid dividends in future recruiting for the program.
But recruits are not the only things that build a program. It also takes a serious financial commitment. The payouts by the bowls to the universities are substantially different. By virtue of losing to Louisville, the Knights missed out on the big money payout of a BCS bowl (approximately $17 million for last year's Allstate Sugar Bowl) for a substantially smaller share of the $4.55 million payout for the Russell Athletic Bowl.
The Scarlet Knights have no one to blame but themselves, as they had two chances to take the conference and earn the BCS bid.
Whether it was the distraction of the Big Ten announcement just before the critical final two games of the season or simply the fact that Kyle Flood suddenly abandoned the formula that had worked for most of the season, the Knights stumbled at the finish line in 2012 and left alumni and fans with a crushing disappointment.
Leading the Big East with two weeks to play, the Scarlet Knights had two bites at the apple to take the Big East. First, instead of tasting the fruits of victory, they choked on the Pitt, losing to the Panthers 27-6 at Heinz Field, setting the stage for the season-ending showdown with Louisville.
The November 29 game against the Cardinals was everything Rutgers fans and alumni could have hoped for: a sold out home game before a national TV audience against a rival in a winner-take-all contest.
"Everyone knows what’s at stake," safety Duron Harmon said before the game (as reported by Tom Luicci of The Star-Ledger on NJ.com). "It’s all you could ever ask for, especially if you’re a senior.”
Then, just as they have since medieval times, the Knights bowed to the Cardinals, 20-17. The loss was due in large part to a gutsy performance by injured Louisville QB Teddy Bridgewater but more so due to three turnovers and two major penalties which led to a 14-point swing in the score.
But at least part of the blame falls upon Kyle Flood, who had stressed the importance of stopping the opposition's ground game while the Knights established their own. Despite leading in the game, Rutgers completely abandoned the running game, giving team-leading rusher Jawan Jamison just 15 carries in the entire game. While it is true that Jamison may not have been at 100 percent due to a late-season ankle injury, not one other RU running back took a handoff in the Louisville game.
In truth, the Knights faded towards the end of the season, losing three of their final five games and just eking past Cincinnati by a score of 10-3.
Simply put, whether it was Flood's inexperience, the distractions, the injuries or the undisciplined play of the Scarlet Knights, Rutgers was undeserving of a BCS bowl in 2012. Instead, they will face off against former Big East rival Virginia Tech, who comes into the game at 6-6 in the Russell Athletic Bowl.
For the Knights, it is a chance to get to 10 wins, extend their bowl winning streak (which currently stands at five) and claim some small consolation from a season that could have been the program's best.
Game Time: Friday, December 28, 5:30pm EST, Orlando, Fla. Television: ESPN